(Moscow, October 11, 2008) - Uzbek authorities should immediately and unconditionally release an independent journalist sentenced on October 10 on politically motivated charges. Solijon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist known for his critical reporting, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for selling drugs, an offense he did not commit.
"Abdurakhmanov's conviction is an affront to human rights and free speech in Uzbekistan," said Igor Vorontsov, Uzbekistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "He often criticized local authorities, including law enforcement. It is clear that he is being punished for his work. Once again, the Uzbek government is showing that it will not tolerate dissent."
On October 13 and 14, 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 protesters, most of them unarmed (https://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/uzbekistan0508/ ). 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.
Police in Nukus, 1,100 kilometers west of Tashkent, arrested Abdurakhmanov on June 7 after claiming that they had 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 represented 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 up his car and 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 is an outspoken journalist who has written on issues that are sensitive in Uzbekistan, such as social and economic justice, human rights, corruption, and the legal status of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of which Nukus is the capital. He worked closely with UzNews, an independent online news agency, and also did freelance work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Abdurakhmanov's sentence comes just one week after a forum on the "Liberalization of the Mass Media," co-sponsored by the EU and the Uzbek government, concluded in Tashkent. A group of independent organizations from EU member states that participated in the forum had warned that it should not be considered evidence of any improvement in Uzbekistan's policy of suppressing free speech.
"Abdurakhmanov's sentence is yet another blatant failure to meet the EU sanctions criteria," said Vorontsov. "Any easing of the sanctions in the face if this travesty would be wholly unconscionable. It would send a signal that the EU stands by while Uzbekistan locks up its critics."
Human Rights Watch urged EU governments and the United States to raise the case of Abdurakhmanov urgently with the Uzbek government and to demand his immediate release.
In the latest episode of a longstanding effort to obstruct Human Rights Watch's work in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek government first denied work accreditation to Human Rights Watch's researcher in Tashkent, then proceeded to outright ban him from entering the country. As a result, Human Rights Watch has been unable to maintain its presence in Uzbekistan since mid-July 2008.
In a September 29, 2008 letter to EU foreign ministers, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to uphold the sanctions against Uzbekistan and make clear they will not be lifted until all the assessment criteria have been met.