(Berlin) – The Uzbek authorities should drop the criminal investigation against the independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev and lift all restrictions on his movement, Human Rights Watch said today. Abdullaev faces charges of “offenses against the president of the Republic of Uzbekistan” and “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime,” each punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
On August 22, 2020, Kyrgyz authorities unlawfully extradited Abdullaev from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, even though he had effectively been denied his right to appeal and his claim for asylum was still pending. On arriving in Tashkent, Abdullaev spent several hours at the State Security Service with his lawyer, after which he was released. Abdullaev is not being allowed to travel in Uzbekistan without permission or to leave the country.
“It’s a relief that Bobomurod Abdullaev is no longer in detention, but he still faces criminal prosecution on apparently fabricated charges and can be rearrested at any time,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek authorities should drop the investigation against Abdullaev and lift all restrictions on his freedom of movement.”
Abdullaev, 47, has written for the Fergana News Agency, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), and other media outlets. In May 2018, a court in Uzbekistan convicted Abdullaev of “infringing the country’s constitutional order” in a legal process marred by procedural violations. He was sentenced to community service and a fine. He alleged at the time that he had been tortured in pre-trial detention. The Uzbek authorities did not investigate his claims.
Abdullaev was until recently on a scholarship in Germany and has an invitation to return there.
Abdullaev’s lawyer, Sergey Mayorov, told Human Rights Watch that Uzbek authorities have opened a preliminary criminal investigation against Abdullaev, but neither he nor Abdullaev could comment further on the case as they had been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Media outlets previously reported that Uzbek authorities requested Abdullaev’s extradition in connection with a criminal investigation on charges under art. 158 (“offenses against the president of the Republic of Uzbekistan”) and art. 159 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan (“conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime”). The charges allegedly stem from social media posts written by “Qora Mergan” (“Black Shooter”) that are critical of Uzbekistan’s president. Abdullaev has denied any connections to “Qora Mergan.”
Abdullaev was arrested by State Committee on National Security (GKNB) officials in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 9. On August 10, a Bishkek court ordered him held by the security agency. After his arrest, security officials denied Abdullaev the right to meet with his lawyers, claiming that he had been put under quarantine. Although Abdullaev was told on August 11 that the Prosecutor General’s Office had issued an extradition order, Kyrgyz authorities did not inform his lawyers, thus hindering Abdullaev’s right to appeal. Moreover, Abdullaev’s request for asylum, filed on August 12, was still pending review at Kyrgyzstan’s migration agency.
Kyrgyz officials said after Abdullaev’s extradition that Uzbekistan had provided Kyrgyz authorities “diplomatic assurances” that Abdullaev would receive legal assistance and adequate medical assistance if necessary, and that he would not be subject to torture, or cruel and inhuman treatment.
Diplomatic assurances rarely provide a reliable basis for human rights protection, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted in 2006 that diplomatic assurances “generally provide no mechanism for their enforcement nor is there any legal remedy for the sending State or the individual concerned in case of non-compliance, once the person has been transferred to the receiving State.”
The UN Committee Against Torture reported in 2019 that torture and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan “continue to be routinely committed by, at the instigation of, and with the consent of the State party’s law enforcement, investigative and prison officials, principally for the purpose of extracting confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings.” The committee also expressed concern over continued reports that judges and prosecutors “tend to disregard and decline to investigate” allegations that confessions were obtained through torture.
Abdullaev faces serious mistreatment and persecution in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said. By returning Abdullaev to Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyzstan government violated its obligations under art. 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and under the 1951 Refugee Convention not to return asylum seekers to a place where they face a serious risk of being persecuted.
“Kyrgyz officials flouted international human rights law by sending Abdullaev back to a country where he is at risk and before his asylum claim had even been considered,” Williamson said. “Kyrgyzstan’s partners should be alarmed by these actions and publicly and privately raise their concerns with the Kyrgyz government.”