Uzbek authorities should reverse the six-year prison sentence handed down yesterday to yet another independent journalist following a politically-motivated trial, Human Rights Watch said today.
Ulugbek Khaidarov, an independent journalist, was sentenced yesterday on charges of “extortion” (under article 165 of the Uzbek criminal code). Authorities had accused Khaidarov of blackmailing a woman who had allegedly shoved money in his pockets right before police arrested him.
Khaidarov is a freelance journalist from Jizzakh province who regularly contributes to several websites on political developments, social problems and the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. He has also been involved with the banned opposition Free Peasant Party (Ozod Dekhonlar).
“The Uzbek government often charges journalists and activists with extortion or hooliganism to punish or silence them,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We have witnessed this pattern of harassment and persecution for many months now.”
This latest imprisonment comes only three days after the United Nations Human Rights Council failed to muster enough support to pursue a public review of Uzbekistan’s disastrous human rights record. That missed opportunity risks reinforcing the Uzbek government’s ability and belief that it can crack down on civil society and violate human rights with impunity.
Khaidarov is the seventh activist from Jizzakh, a town 240 kilometers from Tashkent, to be arrested in the last 10 months alone.
When Khaidarov’s trial started on October 4, his sister told human rights defenders waiting outside the court building that Khaidarov did not want to have independent monitors in the court room because “this would only worsen the situation for him.”
On the final day of the trial, October 5, police led a Human Rights Watch representative into the courtroom and to the defendant’s cage, where Khaidarov was sitting. Khaidarov stood up and said in Russian, “Eto ne nado” (“Don’t do this”), indicating that the representative should leave. He looked very tired, with big black bags under his eyes. Later that day Khaidarov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Khaidarov had been given a six-year prison sentence.
“We are extremely concerned about Khaidarov’s safety and well-being, and we call for his immediate release,” said Cartner. “We also fear for the safety of his family, who appear to have come under immense pressure from the authorities.”
Khaidarov was arrested on the morning of September 14, 2006, on his way home after visiting Bakhtior Khamroev, chairman of the Jizzakh branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). He was waiting at a bus stop when a woman approached him and shoved money in his pockets. He tried to throw away the money when police officers apprehended and arrested him.
Bakhtior Khamroev told Human Rights Watch that his telephone line was switched off for three days starting a half hour after Khaidorov had left his home. Khamroev learned of Khaidarov’s arrest only on September 16. Khaidorov’s defense lawyer, Gioz Namazov, was allowed access to him only on September 19.
Khaidarov was among the Uzbek journalists who were beaten and harassed in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre on May 13, 2005. On June 24, 2005 two unidentified men in uniform attacked him in Karshi, on his way to visit Tulkin Karaev, a journalist and human rights activist. A few days later, Human Rights Watch documented evidence of Khaidarov’s beating: a large lump on his head, severe swelling in his face, one eye swollen shut, and bruises on his body. A doctor confirmed that Khaidarov had suffered a concussion.
On January 11, Khaidarov and Jamshid Mukhtarov, a human rights defender from Jizzakh, were detained in this town on sexual harassment and drunken behavior charges after three women had asked for a match. Mukhtarov handed them a match and within minutes both were detained. Khaidarov and Mukhtarov were detained overnight and released after being compelled to write statements promising not to write articles for the internet or to oppose the government. One month later, Mukhtarov fled Uzbekistan.
Jizzakh: A Province Targeted for Increasing Persecution
The Uzbek government has pursued a fierce crackdown on civil society in the aftermath of the Andijan massacre. Authorities have particularly targeted activists in Jizzakh, an important cotton-growing province. Civil society activists and farmers there have been especially active in reporting allegations of and protesting corruption and the arbitrariness of Governor Ubaidullah Yamankulov, a close ally of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzioev. At least three human rights defenders from the HRSU’s Jizzakh branch have been sentenced on politically motivated charges, two have fled the country, and others have endured other forms of pressure and harassment.
- On September 25, Bakhtior Khamroev’s eldest son, Ikhtior, was found guilty of “hooliganism” (under article 277, part 2, of the criminal code) and sentenced to three years in prison. He was arrested on August 2.
- On September 12, Jamshid Karimov, an independent journalist and nephew of President Islam Karimov, disappeared. His relatives believe that he is currently held in the locked ward of the psychiatric hospital in Samarkand.
- On August 18, Bakhtior Khamroev was attacked in his home by a group of vigilantes, who were likely government proxies, during a visit by a Western diplomat. A group of 15 to 20 women tried to force themselves into Khamroev’s flat after his wife had opened the door. They were shouting that Khamroev had sold his motherland. Some of them managed to pick up shoes in the corridor and threw them at his family. One picked up a metal shoe horn and threw it at Khamroev, hitting him in the face and causing him to bleed.
- On July 19, Mamarajab Nazarov, another longtime rights defender with HRSU, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on extortion charges. Authorities had summoned Tolib Yakubov, chairman of HRSU who lives in Tashkent, to testify in Nazarov’s trial. At the end of July, Yakubov fled Uzbekistan, after a series of threats to his family.
- On June 30, Utkir Pardaev from Jizzakh was sentenced to four years in prison. He was charged with bodily injury (article 105 of the criminal code). Utkir is the younger brother of Uktam Pardaev, another rights defender from Jizzakh, with whom he had been doing human rights research.
- On December 20, 2005 Nosim Isakov, active with the Jizzakh city branch of the HRSU, was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was arrested on October 27, 2005, and charged with “hooliganism” on the basis of a written complaint claiming that he had exposed himself publicly to his neighbor’s teenage daughter. Isakov, who is a deeply religious man, had spent the last few years working on cases involving home evictions. His supporters found the accusation against him particularly shocking and offensive because he is a pious Muslim.
This Year Alone, at Least 12 Human Rights Defenders Imprisoned
The past summer saw the arrest on politically motivated charges of three human rights defenders from other Uzbek provinces as well. On June 16, Yadgar Turlibekov, HRSU chair from Kashkadaria province, was arrested. Turlibekov, 69, is an independent journalist and rights defender who for years has monitored human rights conditions for farmers, market traders and independent Muslims who practice their faith outside state-sanctioned religious institutions. Turlibekov is still awaiting trial.
On June 15, the Yangier City Court sentenced Azam Farmonov and Alisher Karamatov, two members of the HRSU from Syrdaryo province, to nine years in prison. They did not have legal counsel of their choice. Farmonov and Karamatov were arrested on April 29 and charged with extortion. Both were accused of blackmailing two men, and Farmonov is also accused of illegally running a printing business in his home.
So far this year, at least 12 human rights defenders have been convicted and imprisoned on politically motivated charges: Saidjahon Zainabitdinov (seven years), Dilmurod Mukhiddinov (five years), four members of Ezgulik (convicted and released on parole), Rasul Khudainazarov (10 years), Mutabar Tojibaeva (eight years), Jamol Kutliev (seven years), Azam Farmonov (nine years), Alisher Karamatov (nine years), and Mamarajab Nazarov (three-and-a-half-years).
In addition, the government closed the Andijan branch of the human rights organization Ezgulik. As noted above, Utkir Pardaev, the brother of Uktam Pardaev, a human rights defender with whom he had been conducting research, was also sentenced to four years, and Ikhtior Khamroev, son of human rights defender Bakhtior Khamroev, was sentence to three years.
Human rights defenders who continue to work in Uzbekistan are routinely followed by plainclothes men, videotaped by the authorities, prevented from leaving their homes on certain days (for example, to stop them from monitoring a trial). Both they and their families are subjected to other forms of harassment.
The European Union has identified “detention and harassment of those who have questioned the Uzbek authorities’ version of the Andijan events” and the government’s “willingness to adhere to the principles of respect for human rights, rule of law and fundamental freedoms” among the four areas for consideration as part of its upcoming review of its sanctions policy towards Uzbekistan. A decision on whether to maintain the existing regime or expand it by introducing additional measures is expected in November 2006.
The sanctions currently in force consist of a partial suspension of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the framework regulating the European Union’s relations with Uzbekistan, an embargo on arms exports to Uzbekistan, and an EU-wide visa ban on member countries from issuing visas to “those individuals who are directly responsible for the indiscriminate, disproportionate use of force in Andijan and the obstruction of an independent inquiry.”
“Khaidarov’s sentence is only the latest example of the Uzbek government’s relentless crackdown since the Andijan massacre,” said Cartner. “The EU should increase pressure on the Uzbek government by expanding the sanctions regime, and it’s high time that the U.S. adopted sanctions mirroring the EU measures.”
Khaidarov’s sentencing happened during a visit to Uzbekistan by a high-level German Foreign Ministry official.
Ulugbek Khaidarov: Freelance journalist sentenced to six years in prison.
Uktam Pardaev: Human rights defender and brother of Utkir Pardaev who was sentenced to 4 years in prison.
Azam Farmonov: Human rights defender sentenced to nine years in prison.