Uzbek authorities should drop all charges against an independent journalist facing politically motivated prosecution and release him, Human Rights Watch said today. Salijon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist known for his critical reporting of the authorities, goes on trial on September 12, 2008, in Nukus, the capital city of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan, 1,100 kilometers west of Tashkent.
Traffic police arrested Abdurakhmanov, 58, on June 7 when they stopped his car, allegedly to check his identity, and found 114.18 g of marijuana and 5.89 g of opium on the underside of his car. Abdurakhmanov denies knowing about or having anything to do with the drugs and his brother, Bakhrom, a lawyer who is representing him at this trial, believes that the police planted the drugs. A few days before his arrest Abdurakhmanov left his car in a local repair shop. He told his brother that the police monitored him closely after he picked his car up until his arrest. The investigators failed to carry out basic investigative steps such as checking the drugs for fingerprints despite repeated requests by Abdurakhmanov and his lawyer.
“Abdurakhmanov often criticized local authorities, including law enforcement,” said Igor Vorontsov, Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “His arrest is yet another example of the Uzbek government’s policy of silencing critics.”
Shortly before the arrest, Abdurakhmanov wrote a very critical article about traffic police in Karakalpakstan, his brother, Bakhrom, said.
Abdurakhmanov is an outspoken journalist who has written on sensitive issues such as social and economic justice, human rights, corruption, and the legal status of Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. He worked closely with UzNews, an independent online news agency, and also freelanced for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Authorities initially charged Abdurakhmanov with drug possession, but after the investigators determined that Abdurakhmanov does not use drugs, they charged him with selling drugs instead, a more serious charge punishable by up to 20 years of imprisonment.
Abdurakhmanov’s case is the latest in a long line of politically motivated prosecutions waged by the Uzbek authorities against independent journalists and human rights activists. At least 18 human rights defenders, dissidents and journalists remain in prison. Numerous others, fearing for their safety, have fled Uzbekistan to seek asylum abroad. One independent journalist, Jamshid Karimov, has been in held in closed psychiatric detention since mid-September 2006 and has been subjected to forcible psychiatric treatment. In response to international criticism, the government has released several imprisoned human rights defenders, but harassment and arrests of others continue.
“Make no mistake – the release of human rights defenders, while welcome, does not represent fundamental reform,” said Vorontsov. “As Abdurakhmanov’s case shows, anyone who dares to speak out remains vulnerable to be locked up at any time.”
Abdurakhmanov’s trial comes just one month before the European Union is slated to review Uzbekistan’s human rights record to determine whether to continue the sanctions regime adopted in the aftermath of the 2005 Andijan massacre, when government forces shot hundreds of unarmed protesters. Among the assessment criteria established by the European Union for reviewing the sanctions are for the Uzbek government to stop the harassment of civil society and to release imprisoned rights defenders and dissidents.
“The Uzbek government is eager to talk about its commitment to human rights and that’s welcome, but it continues business as usual – throwing journalists and dissidents behind bars,” Vorontsov said. “Abdurakhmanov’s prosecution flies in the face of the EU sanctions criteria and the EU must not let this pass without consequences.”
Human Rights Watch urged the United States and EU governments to closely monitor Abdurakhmanov’s trial in Nukus, and to call for Abdurakhmanov’s immediate release.
In July, the Uzbek government banned Human Rights Watch’s researcher from entering Uzbekistan.