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THREE YEARS ON FROM ANDIJAN, INDEPENDENT PRESS STILL STRANGLED

Three years after civilians were killed by Uzbek security forces in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan, the government continues to persecute journalists, activists and human rights defenders who spoke out against the massacre, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights Watch.

According to CPJ, five journalists are still in jail for their reporting of Andijan. They are serving sentences ranging from five to 15 years on "trumped-up charges" - from embezzling funds to participating in anti-constitutional activities.

One such journalist is the President's nephew, Dzamshid Karimov. Karimov, a former correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) disappeared in September 2006 only to be discovered in a psychiatric hospital in the city of Samarkand. He is still being held incommunicado.

Other reporters - and their families - have been subjected to harassment and surveillance by security services, their movements and reporting ability hampered. According to CPJ, the authorities have circulated an "unofficial" list of topics on which the media is forbidden to report - from the massacre and other human rights abuses, to the President and opposition party activities.

Dozens of journalists and activists have fled the country for fear of their safety. Several refugees who returned to Uzbekistan - only to flee again - told Human Rights Watch they had been subjected to repeated interrogations upon their return, and forced to sign false confessions or statements supporting the government's version of the May 2005 events. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia have all flouted their international obligations and forcibly returned refugees and asylum seekers to Uzbekistan, often at Tashkent's request.

Meanwhile, foreign journalists have had their accreditation revoked and have been chased out of the country. In 2007, at least two correspondents of German news agency "Deutsche Welle" were forced to leave Uzbekistan after enduring harassment by tax police and Tashkent prosecutors, says CPJ.

The handful of local independent journalists who have remained in Uzbekistan now report only clandestinely; most do so under pseudonyms, says CPJ. The restrictions have "all but eliminated the independent press in the country," regional journalists and media experts told CPJ.

The Andijan massacre took place three years ago on 13 May 2005, when government troops indiscriminately shot dead hundreds of civilians protesting against President Karimov's regime. Despite calls for an independent investigation into the events of 13 May, the Uzbek government has refused to allow an investigation to take place and has held no one accountable for the massacre.

Human rights defender Mutabar Tojibaeva, who is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence for her outspoken criticism of the government following the massacre, has been selected to receive this year's Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, a prize given by Human Rights Watch and nine other leading human rights organisations.

In October 2005, Tojibaeva was arrested in her home as she was preparing to travel to a human rights conference in Ireland. She was charged with 17 counts of criminal activity, including slander, extortion, tax evasion, polluting the environment and membership in an illegal organisation - her own unregistered NGO. Yet, despite the threat of a long prison sentence, Tojibaeva remained defiant and told the court, "I do not regret my activities and I will continue them regardless of the verdict."

Tojibaeva was recently diagnosed with cancer and her health is deteriorating. The Martin Ennals jury is calling for her immediate release.

Human Rights Watch is urging the U.S. and the EU to act urgently to help stop the crackdown in Uzbekistan. The release of human rights defenders was among the criteria that the EU set for reviewing the sanctions it imposed on Tashkent in October 2005 following the Andijan massacre. Over the past two years, the EU has incrementally weakened the sanctions, consisting mostly of an arms embargo and a visa ban for government officials, despite the Uzbek government's persistent defiance to heed the criteria. On 29 April, the EU for the second time in a row suspended the visa ban altogether for six months.

Visit these links:
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/4djk2e
- Human Rights Watch Uzbekistan page: http://tinyurl.com/4gotxf
- Human Rights Watch report, "Saving its Secrets: Government Repression in Andijan": http://hrw.org/reports/2008/uzbekistan0508/
- Martin Ennals Award: http://www.martinennalsaward.org/
(20 May 2008)

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