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Alisher Saipov, an independent journalist whose reporting criticized human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan and neighboring Uzbekistan, was shot to death on October 24 in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kyrgyz government must ensure a thorough and impartial investigation into his murder and bring the perpetrators to justice.

On the evening of October 24, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz journalist and a friend were walking not far from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty bureau when an unidentified gunman approached them, shot Saipov once in the leg and twice in the head, killing him, according to reports by local media.

“Saipov’s murder is a brutal crime that smacks of retribution for his work,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “He was a courageous journalist committed to exposing human rights abuses, particularly by the Uzbek government. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.”

Saipov was a regular contributor to news agencies such as Ferghana.Ru, Voice of America, and RFE/RL. In May, Saipov began regularly publishing a weekly Uzbek language newspaper Siosat [Politics], devoted to covering politics, human rights, and religious persecution in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Saipov distributed Siosat widely in southern Kyrgyzstan, where a large number of ethnic Uzbeks live and regularly travel across the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

Saipov was one of Central Asia’s most outspoken and active critics of the Uzbek government. He was instrumental in reporting about the immediate aftermath of the 2005 uprising and massacre in the Uzbek city of Andijan. Saipov reported on the harassment of Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers, including those who fled Andijan, by Uzbek security agents in southern Kyrgyzstan. In addition, he advocated on their behalf with human rights organizations and other groups.

Over the last few months, articles disparaging Saipov have been published in pro-government news agencies in Uzbekistan. Last month an article in called Saipov a “traitor’s knife in the back of Uzbekistan.” It also claimed that he supported religious extremism and terrorism.

Saipov publicly criticized the Kyrgyz government for allowing the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) to operate freely in Osh to search for Uzbek refugees and asylum-seekers and return them to Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz government has denied these allegations.

In contrast to neighboring Uzbekistan, journalists in Kyrgyzstan can work relatively independently and without fear of persecution.

“The Kyrgyz government should show its commitment to freedom of speech and rule of law by not tolerating crimes like Saipov’s murder,” said Cartner.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev said this morning that he has taken the investigation into Saipov’s murder under his personal control.

Saipov faced threats and attacks in the past. In June 2006, he was badly beaten several weeks after publishing an article in which he linked organized crime to politics in his native city of Osh. He was hospitalized for his injuries, which included a broken cheekbone. Saipov told a friend he did not know who was responsible for the attack.

Saipov was also under the scrutiny of Kyrgyz security services. On several occasions, most recently in summer 2007, Kyrgyz security agents questioned Saipov about his work on undocumented migrants. They also inspected his office.

Saipov is survived by his wife and 3-month old daughter.

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