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HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER FREED ON APPEAL

As the "Communiqué" went to press, an Uzbek journalist and human rights defender was freed after an appeals court reduced her prison term to a suspended sentence.

Last week, Umida Niazova, a translator for Human Rights Watch at the time of her arrest, was sentenced to seven years in jail in an "unfair trial" for smuggling extremist literature, crossing the border illegally and creating and distributing materials that threaten public security, according to ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

But today, she was given a seven-year suspended sentence in a court of appeal, reports Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Niazova will be under surveillance and will have to report to the police for three years, says RFE/RL.

"We are relieved that our colleague Umida Niyazova is free and can be reunited with her family," says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). "But we're troubled that her conviction and baseless imprisonment has had a further chilling effect on what's left of the Uzbek press."

Last December, Niazova had her computer and passport confiscated when she arrived in Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan. The "extremist literature" in her possession included interviews with witnesses of the Andijan massacre of 13 May 2005, where Uzbek officials killed hundreds of people participating in a peaceful demonstration in the city of Andijan. She was detained on 22 January after crossing the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, says Human Rights Watch.

Niazova's trial, originally scheduled for 19 April, was postponed until 30 April when it began with only 30 minutes' notice to Niazova's lawyer, without any warning to the public, and closed to the press altogether, says Freedom House. According to Human Rights Watch, neither Niazova nor her defence witnesses were given time by the judge to respond to questions from the prosecution and defence teams, who were referred only to written statements.

Human Rights Watch says Niazova's sentencing should compel the European Union to make the release of human rights defenders a necessary precondition for any further easing of sanctions against Uzbekistan. The sanctions, in place since November 2005 in response to the Uzbek government's refusal to allow an independent inquiry into the Andijan massacre, are to be reviewed at an EU meeting on 14 May.

Niazova was a regular contributor to RFE/RL and other news agencies. She also worked with Freedom House and the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES).

Human Rights Watch also reports that on 24 April, another Uzbek human rights defender, Gulbahor Turaeva, was sentenced to six years in jail on politically motivated charges for bringing in banned books by exiled opposition leader Muhammed Solih. A further 13 Uzbek human rights defenders are currently in custody in Uzbekistan, according to Human Rights Watch.

Visit these links:
- IFEX alerts on Niazova: http://tinyurl.com/2tt9ym
- CPJ on Niazova's release: http://tinyurl.com/2p6vaz
- Human Rights Watch on Niazova: http://tinyurl.com/37vxyz
- Human Rights Watch on all Uzbek defenders in custody: http://hrw.org/campaigns/uzbekistan/portraits_0407.pdf
- ARTICLE 19 on Niazova: http://tinyurl.com/34d2x6
- RFE/RL on Niazova's release: http://tinyurl.com/2tef2u
- "Free Umida" blog: http://tinyurl.com/38tmm8
(8 May 2007)

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