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EU RELAXES UZBEK SANCTIONS DESPITE REPORTER'S JAILING

An Uzbek journalist who wrote on issues of social and economic justice, human rights and corruption has been given 10 years in jail on fabricated charges, report ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members. Ironically, his weighty jail sentence came just days before the European Union (EU) decided to ease sanctions against Uzbekistan for alleged progress on human rights issues.

On 10 October, Salijon Abdurakhmanov, who ARTICLE 19 calls "one of the few remaining independent journalists" in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan, was given 10 years in jail for drug possession with intent to sell.

In June, Abdurakhmanov, the correspondent for the news website UzNews.net and freelancer for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), was arrested after 114 grams of marijuana and five grams of opium were found in the trunk of his car.

Abdurakhmanov claims that police planted the drugs as a means to silence his critical reporting - in one of his last pieces for UzNews.net the journalist covered corruption in traffic police. Medical tests proved that he wasn't a drug user.

"In many countries, journalists are prosecuted for doing their jobs, but in countries like Uzbekistan state authorities fabricate accusations against journalists for ordinary crimes. In both cases, the aim is to silence independent and critical voices," said ARTICLE 19.

Abdurakhmanov's court verdict comes only three days before the EU decided to ease its sanctions on Uzbekistan at a foreign ministers' meeting on 13 October.

According to IWPR, an EU statement "welcomed the progress achieved in Uzbekistan in the last year with regard to respect for the rule of law and protection of human rights," and cited as positive examples the release of human rights defender Mutabar Tojibaeva from jail last year and the abolition of the death penalty.

The EU also hailed Tashkent's willingness to discuss human rights, such as at a media freedom conference held in Tashkent on 2-3 October.

But rights groups invited to the conference by the EU, including Amnesty International, and IFEX members Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19, said that the event "should not be viewed as evidence of any improvement in the country's 17-year policy of suppressing freedom of speech." Authorities excluded independent journalists and foreign reporters from even participating, the groups said.

"We could attest first-hand that nothing new was heard from the representatives of the government and the state-controlled media who were present," said the rights groups in a statement. "There was no hint of acknowledgement from the Uzbek side that the country's media are neither free nor independent, that journalists and others are regularly imprisoned for expressing their opinions, that access to critical external internet sites is blocked, and that foreign journalists are not allowed accreditation to cover the country from within."

The EU imposed sanctions, including travel bans for top Uzbek officials, after President Islam Karimov refused requests for an independent international inquiry into the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which government troops fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing hundreds. At the October meeting, it dropped its remaining sanctions against Uzbekistan, except for an arms embargo.

International human rights groups continue to call on the EU to reinstate the sanctions if Uzbekistan does not improve its free expression record, such as ending state censorship and freeing all wrongfully imprisoned journalists.

"The Uzbek government's past record of engagement with the EU and other international institutions clearly demonstrates that discussions of possible reforms have consistently been used as a substitute for real and measurable progress. They may be no more than a decoy designed to extract concessions at no cost to the Uzbek authorities," warned the groups.

Visit these links:
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/42v7nz
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/4pcqe4
- Statement by rights groups: http://tinyurl.com/4ngnro
- IWPR on EU sanctions: http://tinyurl.com/489anv
(15 October 2008)

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