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Uzbek authorities should immediately release an Uzbek human rights defender who went missing earlier this week and has been detained on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today.

Umida Niazova, 32, works with Veritas, an unregistered Uzbek nongovernmental human rights organization, and as a translator for Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent representative office. She was arrested near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on January 22, held in Andijan, and transported to Tashkent on January 26, when the authorities finally permitted her to contact her lawyer.

Umida Niazova, July, 2006. © 2006 Private

Uzbek authorities initially detained Niazova on December 21 at the Tashkent airport, where they questioned her at length and threatened her with criminal charges of possession of anti-state materials on her laptop computer. They confiscated her laptop and passport and released her the same day, but continued to investigate her on suspicion of criminal and administrative charges. Her laptop was sent for “expert analysis” to determine whether it contained subversive material.

“Niazova was threatened with these charges for political reasons,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In our view, the authorities wanted to intimidate Umida Niazova into stopping her human rights work.”

In mid-January Niazova’s lawyer told her that the expert commission found no grounds for bringing charges, and that she could collect her laptop and passport from the customs agency. But Niazova missed a planned meeting with her lawyer on January 22 to retrieve her property, after which all contact with her was lost until January 26.

It appears the accusations stemming from the content of her laptop have not been dropped, and Niazova is now facing charges of bringing “extremist” literature across the border (article 246 of the Uzbek criminal code, which is punishable by five to 10 years of imprisonment) and illegal border crossing (article 223, which is punishable by a fine or up to five to 10 years). It is not clear that actions allegedly committed by Niazova form the basis of these charges.

“Niazova is the victim of political persecution and apparently of entrapment,” said Cartner. “There is no reason whatsoever why she should be in custody. We are profoundly concerned about her well-being.”

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