Update: On October 15, the independent journalist and Voice of America correspondent Abdumalik Boboev was convicted by the Mirzo-Ulugbek District Criminal Court on charges of criminal defamation, insult, and preparing or distributing materials that threaten public security and order. A fourth charge - illegal border crossing - was dropped.
Boboev will serve no time in prison, but the court fined him 400 times the minimum wage (approximately $11,000 USD). He plans to appeal the verdict.
(New York) - The Uzbek authorities should quash the conviction for criminal defamation and insult of the veteran journalist Vladimir Berezovskii and allow him to exercise his right to freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 13, 2010, a Tashkent court convicted Berezovskii, editor of the Russian-language news website Vesti.uz, on the bogus charges.
The charges were brought in July after the State Press and Information Agency's Mass Media Monitoring Center (UzASI) reviewed articles on the Vesti.uz website. In court, Berezovskii was granted an amnesty, which means he will not be subject to any punishment. But his conviction will stand, and he will have a criminal record. He plans to appeal.
"Berezovskii was convicted on allegations of insult and libel that should have never made their way to the courtroom in the first place," said Allison Gill, a Europe and Central Asia adviser at Human Rights Watch. "The Uzbek authorities should immediately stop their relentless campaign against free speech and independent expression."
Restrictive laws allow the authorities to prosecute any journalist whose work the government considers hostile to Uzbekistan. Amendments passed in 2004 to the Criminal Code effectively criminalize the sharing of information critical of human rights in Uzbekistan. Journalists working for foreign media agencies are required by law to be accredited by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Berezovskii is one of several journalists who have been targeted for their work in 2010. At least 10 other independent journalists are detained or serving prison sentences.
The indictment against Berezovskii said that the media monitoring center's expert had concluded that 16 articles published on Vesti.uz between August 2009 and January 2010 were defamatory and introduced "to the Uzbek population defamatory, misleading and misinformed information, the distribution of which could incite interethnic and inter-state hostility and create panic among the population." The conclusions did not identify any individual as the injured party.
The articles address issues including labor migration and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Berezovskii told Human Rights Watch that he did not write any of the 16 articles but that the articles, previously published on Russian news websites, were simply re-posted on Vesti.uz. Several news agencies on whose sites the articles first appeared issued statements that were submitted to the court attesting to the fact that the articles were theirs, not Berezovskii's.
Berezovskii told Human Rights Watch that his lawyer submitted several motions to bolster his defense, including a request for further specialist review of the material and requests to call witnesses, but that the judge did not allow them.
On September 28, a Russian Embassy representative was barred from attending the trial. The judge claimed that the diplomat needed permission from the Supreme Court, though all trials in Uzbekistan are open by law unless declared closed for reasons of national security or other compelling interests as defined by law. Several human rights activists who had come to monitor the trial were also initially refused entry, but later allowed in.
Another Tashkent-based journalist, Abdumalik Boboev, who has worked as Voice of America's Uzbekistan correspondent since 2006, is also facing defamation charges and charges of preparing or distributing materials that threaten public security and order. Another charge, "illegal entry into the country," apparently stems from a minor incident involving a missing stamp in Boboev's passport. If convicted, Boboev faces up to eight years in prison.
Boboev's trial began on October 7 at the Mirzo-Ulugbek District Criminal Court. Representatives from the US and UK Embassies who tried to monitor the trial were denied entry.
The defamation charges against Boboev are based on a review of his print and radio materials, also by the media monitoring center. Boboev told Human Rights Watch that he has written articles about the lack of freedom of speech and highlighting the number of imprisoned journalists in Uzbekistan. He has also written about unemployment and the financial crisis, the cotton industry, and foreign relations.
The agency concluded that Boboev's publications insulted the judiciary and law enforcement structures. On October 7, Boboev's lawyer requested an opportunity to question the press agency's experts, but the judge denied the motion.
Boboev worked for Voice of America in Uzbekistan for over five years, and in 2009, received an award from the US Embassy in Tashkent for his writing about Uzbekistan-US relations.
He repeatedly tried to register with the authorities, as required, but received no response to his numerous applications for accreditation, leaving him vulnerable to being targeted by the government as unregistered. In January, several journalists including Boboev were summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning about their journalistic activities.
"The charges against Boboev are clearly to punish him for expressing opinions critical of the government," Gill said. "The Uzbek authorities should drop the charges against him immediately and stop using the law to curtail the public's access to information."
The threat of spurious conviction, through the use and abuse of criminal defamation and insult laws, prevents journalists and human rights defenders from carrying out their important work, Human Rights Watch said. Uzbekistan's criminal defamation and insult laws are a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the aim of protecting reputations. The laws create a chilling effect on freedom of expression and are liable to be misused solely to silence those who wish to speak out on matters displeasing to the government or others wielding power. Such laws are incompatible with full respect for and proper protection of freedom of expression as provided for in international human rights law, and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch called on Uzbekistan's international partners, especially the United States and European Union, to urge the Uzbek government to uphold the rule of law, end persecution of civil society and the media, reform its defamation and insult laws, and release wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders and journalists.
At its upcoming Foreign Affairs Council meeting, on October 25 and 26, the EU is scheduled to assess Uzbekistan's progress in meeting human rights benchmarks imposed by the EU following the massacre of largely peaceful protesters in Andijan in 2005. The benchmarks require Uzbekistan to, among other things, "guarantee freedom of speech and the media."
"The EU needs to press the Uzbek government to stop criminal prosecution of journalists like Boboev and Berezovskii," Gill said. "The EU's review is a critical moment for sober, objective scrutiny of Uzbekistan's human rights record and for the EU to take a stand against the Uzbek authorities' crackdown on media freedoms."
The Uzbek government has a long and well documented track record of persecuting individuals perceived to be government critics and of sending them to prison on trumped-up charges. At least two human rights activists have been prosecuted on criminal charges in the last three months alone.
On August 6, Gaibullo Jalilov, a Karshi-based member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan who had been serving a nine-year sentence on religious extremism charges after he was convicted in an unfair trial on January 18, was sentenced to four more years on additional counts of anti-constitutional activity. On September 16, Anatolii Volkov, a member of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, was convicted on fraud charges after an investigation and trial marred by due process violations. He was granted an amnesty.
On February 10, a photographer and videographer, Umida Ahmedova, was convicted by the Mirobad District Criminal Court on charges of defamation and insulting the Uzbek people. The charges were brought in January on the basis of an expert analysis by the State Press and Information Agency of a book of photographs published in 2007 and a documentary film released 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."
At least 14 human rights defenders are being held by the Uzbek authorities on politically motivated charges. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Rasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Farkhat Mukhtarov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov and Akzam Turgunov. One other activist, Tatyana Dovlatova, a member of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, is currently on trial on trumped-up charges of hooliganism.