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CPJ urges Uzbekistan to acquit Umida Akhmedova, release imprisoned journalists

(CPJ/IFEX) - February 17, 2010 - In an open letter, CPJ called on the Uzbek president to guarantee the right to freedom of expression for all citizens:

Islam Karimov
President of Uzbekistan
ul. Uzbekistanskaya 43, Rezidentsia prezidenta
700163 Tashkent, Republic of Uzbekistan
Fax: +998 71 2395325
E-mail: presidents_office@press-service.uz

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by your government's intensified pressure on independent journalists in Uzbekistan.

Since the killings in Andijan in 2005, information out of Uzbekistan has become extremely limited. Many journalists have had to flee the country and others continue to face official harassment for their reporting. Seven journalists - whose cases are outlined below - are currently behind bars in retaliation for their work. Contributors to local independent news outlets and the Western media have been officially persecuted and obstructed; they and their relatives are routinely smeared as "traitors" in the mainstream, state-controlled Uzbek media.

The February 10 conviction of Umida Akhmedova on trumped-up charges of libeling and insulting the Uzbek people is yet another step backward for press freedom. A Tashkent court found Akhmedova, a well-known photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, guilty of "denigration from mercenary or other foul motives" and "insult through a printed or otherwise copied text, or through the mass media." The indictments stem from a 2007 album of photographs depicting life in Uzbek villages and a 2008 documentary on the traditional ban on premarital sex. Both were produced with support by the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent. In the album, titled "Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk," Akhmedova shows people in their daily routine and during traditional rituals. Her documentary - The Burden of Virginity - criticizes the pressure on young women in Uzbekistan to practice abstinence until marriage.

Mirabad District Court Judge Bekzod Ermatov issued the verdict solely based on a "complex expert review" by the state media monitoring agency under Uzbekistan's Information Ministry. The review said, in part, that "Looking at the pictures, a foreigner who had not seen Uzbekistan comes to the conclusion that this is a country where people live in the Middle Ages. The author intentionally focuses on life's hardships." During the trial, none of the agency's experts were allowed to respond to the defense's argument on this. Judge Ermatov also ignored the defense's argument that the prosecution had failed to produce a plaintiff, allegedly defamed by Akhmedova, in court.

Though amnestied immediately, a criminal record now tarnishes Akhmedova's professional reputation, and chills the work of journalists, artists, and filmmakers who take on similar subjects.

CPJ urges you to make good on your stated priorities for media development in Uzbekistan, as outlined in your January 27 address to the joint session of parliament. As you put it, "Life itself today demands from us to strengthen the position and role of the mass media as an institution of civil society." You also emphasized the need to "liberalize the media" and accelerate the development of independent outlets to cover your country's political reforms in a transparent and open manner. As you rightfully pointed out, this can be done only if a plurality of opinions and the freedom to express them is respected in society and guaranteed by Uzbek lawmakers.

Akhmedova's case is only the most recent criminalization of an independent journalist. Uzbekistan continues to steadily hold the dubious honor of being the leading jailer of journalists across Eurasia. We call on you to correct this record by releasing the seven journalists currently behind bars:

- Muhammad Bekjanov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, respectively editor and reporter for the opposition newspaper Erk, were imprisoned on March 15, 1999, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. They were convicted of publishing and distributing a banned newspaper that criticized you, participating in a banned political protest, and attempting to overthrow the regime.

- Gayrat Mehliboyev, a contributor to the state-run weekly Hurriyat, was arrested on July 24, 2002, for allegedly participating in a rally supporting the banned Islamist opposition party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Six months later, a Tashkent court sentenced him for anti-constitutional activities and religious extremism, and gave him seven years in jail. In 2006, while serving his term, Mehliboyev was sentenced to six additional years on other extremism charges.

- Ortikali Namazov, editor of state newspaper Pop Tongi and correspondent for state newspaper Kishlok Khayoti, was convicted of embezzlement after he wrote several critical articles alleging regional government malfeasance in land management and fiscal auditing. He was sentenced to five and a half years in prison in August 2004.

- Dzhamshid Karimov, a freelance journalist and your nephew, was forced into a psychiatric facility in Samarkand in September 2006. Authorities have disclosed neither a court order nor a medical diagnosis. Karimov remains without access to a lawyer, family, or friends. Before his imprisonment, he reported for a variety of independent outlets, often criticizing the social and economic policies of both local and national authorities.

- Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a reporter for the independent news Web site Uznews, is in prison on fabricated drug possession charges. Nukus authorities arrested him after traffic police claimed they found drugs in his trunk. Judge Kadyrbai Dzhamolov sentenced the journalist to 10 years in jail on October 10, 2008. Before his arrest, he had covered human rights and economic and social issues, detailing alleged corruption in the Nukus regional traffic police for Uznews.

- Dilmurod Saiid, a freelance journalist who covered abuses in the agricultural sector and violations of farmers' rights, was arrested in Tashkent in February 2009 after a woman told authorities she had extorted money from a local businessman on Saiid's orders. Although she retracted her statement days later, Saiid was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison for extortion. Saiid was sentenced in the absence of a defense lawyer, family, and the press. In November, his wife and young daughter died in a car accident while on their way to visit him in prison. The Uzbek human rights group Ezgulik appealed for his release on humanitarian grounds, to no avail.

In line with your declared commitment to fostering an environment for the development of active, pluralistic, and vibrant media in Uzbekistan, we urge you to release our jailed colleagues, ensure that Umida Akhmedova is fully acquitted on appeal, and guarantee the right to freedom of expression for all Uzbek citizens.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director
Related stories on ifex.org
  • Journalist charged with defaming Uzbeks

    The charges against Umida Akhmedova stem from photographs depicting life in Uzbek villages and a documentary on the traditional ban on premarital sex.

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