Update: On February 10, 2010 photographer and videographer Umida Ahmedova was convicted by the Mirobad District Criminal Court on charges of slander and insulting the Uzbek people.
The charges were brought against Ahmedova in January 2010 on the basis of a book of photographs published in 2007 and a documentary film published in 2008. These works reflect everyday life and traditions in Uzbekistan, with a focus on gender inequality, but were found by the court to "discredit the foundations and customs of the people of Uzbekistan" and "offend [their] traditions."
Ahmedova was amnestied in the courtroom in honor of the 18th anniversary of Uzbekistan's independence and will not go to prison. She plans to appeal the court's guilty verdict.
(New York - January 28) - The Uzbek authorities should immediately drop the baseless slander and insult charges against the prominent photographer and videographer Umida Ahmedova and allow her to carry out her work and exercise her right to freedom of expression without government interference, Human Rights Watch said today.
The charges were brought on January 13, 2010, under articles 139 and 140 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. On January 23, investigators informed Ahmedova that the investigation had been completed and that the trial is expected to begin soon. The charges, specifically slander and insulting the Uzbek people, are based on a book of Ahmedova's photographs published in 2007 and a documentary film produced in 2008. If convicted, Ahmedova could face up to three years in prison.
"The charges against Umida Ahmedova reveal the absurd lengths the government will go to silence independent expression," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The case sets a dangerous precedent and is a threat to all Uzbek artists."
Ahmedova's book, "Women and Men: From Dawn till Dusk," portrays rural Uzbekistan and Uzbek traditions, focusing on gender inequality. The film, "The Burden of Virginity," explores the social consequences for brides who are suspected of not being virgins.
Both projects were funded by the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent. Human Rights Watch has received information that other artists whose projects were funded by the Swiss Embassy Gender Program have also come under investigation by the authorities.
As part of the investigation, the prosecutor ordered a review of Ahmedova's book and film by an expert panel, consisting of six specialists in the fields of religious affairs, spirituality, and psychology. The panel concluded that Ahmedova's work was insulting to the people of Uzbekistan and portrayed Uzbekistan in a negative light to Western audiences.
The panel said that 90 percent of the photos in Ahmedova's book "were taken in remote, backward villages" and concluded that "the author's aim is to show the difficult side of life [in Uzbekistan]." The panel expressed concern that "a foreigner who has never been to Uzbekistan, but who is familiar with this album, would reach the conclusion that [Uzbekistan] is a country where people live in the Middle Ages." The experts concluded that Ahmedova's "photo album does not conform to aesthetic demands," and that "[d]istribution of this film does great damage to the spiritual values of Uzbekistan."
"It is not the role of the Uzbek government to dictate how artists should depict Uzbek society, Cartner said. "The charges against Ahmedova are utterly groundless."
Ahmedova was first questioned about her work in November 2009. At that time she was summoned to the Mirobad Police Station in Tashkent, the capital, where she was told by the investigator, Nodir Ahmadjanov, that she was a witness in the case. However, on December 16, Ahmedova was verbally informed that she was a suspect in a criminal investigation that had been opened in response to a review of her work, including the 2007 photo album and the 2008 documentary film, by the State Press and Information Agency. She was told she should hire a lawyer.
Ahmedova later learned through official case documents that she had already been a suspect when she was first questioned. Suspects are afforded greater rights than witnesses under Uzbek law, and investigators have an obligation to inform anyone who becomes a suspect as soon as that is determined. Those rights were denied Ahmedova because the investigator failed to inform her of her status.
On January 13, when the prosecutor's office formally pressed criminal charges, Ahmedova was required to sign a document acknowledging that she had been accused. The document was back-dated to December 20. She was also required to sign another statement acknowledging that she is barred from leaving Uzbekistan.
Ahmedova, a photographer and cinematographer, graduated from the All-Soviet State Institute of Cinematography in 1986. She is a member of the Cinematography Union of Uzbekistan and of the Uzbek Academy of Artists. She has spoken on several television and radio programs about her work, and exhibited her photographs and films internationally, including in Tbilisi, Georgia at an international conference on Gender and Mass Media, as well as in cities across Europe. Ahmedova has won several prizes for her photography, including at the InterPress Photo Competition in Russia in 2004.
At the end of December, artists, photographers, journalists, and others from around the world issued an open statement addressed to Uzbekistan's Internal Affairs and Foreign Affairs Ministries, calling for the charges against Ahmedova to be dropped.