Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of Bobomurod Abdullayev, an Uzbek freelance journalist who today completes a month in detention in worrying conditions and is facing between 10 and 20 years in prison on a charge of seeking to “overthrow constitutional order.”
Abdullayev’s fate is a test case for the Uzbek government. He is the first journalist to be imprisoned under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, whose talk of reform has contrasted sharply with his predecessor Islam Karimov’s brutal policies.
After Abdullayev went missing on 27 September, two days went by before his family learned that he was being held at a Tashkent detention centre by the National Security Service (SNB), which accuses him of calling for the government’s overthrow in articles posted online under the pseudonym of Usman Khaknazar. His colleagues say this is inconceivable.
The SNB also claims that these articles were written at the behest of Muhammad Salih, a government opponent living in exile.
As per the latest available information, Abdullayev has not had access to a lawyer and has not been allowed visits by his family, except once.
RSF took advantage of its presence in Tashkent for a regional conference on the media to publicly request an explanation about his case on 19 October, but no answers were obtained. The concern about Abdullayev’s fate is all the greater because torture is often used in Uzbek detention centres.
A freelance contributor to the independent news website Ferghana, Abdullayev is also a sports journalist and a former correspondent of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IPWR) and Radio Ozodlik (the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty).
“We call on the Uzbek authorities to free Bobomurod Abdullayev and to guarantee his safety and his right to legal defence,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “In the climate of hope raised by President Mirziyoyev’s reforms, this is a test case. Does the incipient thaw include the security services and media freedom?”
Climate of hope
A page was turned in Uzbekistan when President Islam Karimov died in 2016. His 25-year rule was marked by increasingly harsh censorship and by a brutal crackdown on outspoken journalists and other government critics.
His successor, former Prime Minister Mirziyoyev, has promised to improve respect for human rights. He proclaimed 2017 to be the “Year of Dialogue with the People and Human Interests” and refers constantly to the “2017-2021 National Action Strategy,” under which the rule of law is to be developed.
Several prominent detainees have been released this year after being held for years. They include Muhammad Bekjanov, the winner of RSF’s Press Freedom Prize in 2013. He was the world’s longest-held journalist when released in February after 18 years in prison.
Fellow journalist Jamshid Karimov was released a month later from the psychiatric clinic where he was held for nearly 10 years. Solidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a journalist who had been held for nine years, was finally released earlier this month.
Aside from Abdullayev, at least four other journalists nonetheless continue to be detained in connection with their reporting, and the reported release of five other journalists with the newspaper Irmok has yet to be confirmed.
The introduction of live TV programmes, including programmes on sensitive social issues, was brought to an early end at the new prime minister’s request in August. The leading independent news websites such as Ferghana and Radio Ozodlik continue to be blocked in Uzbekistan, which is ranked 169th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.