Testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Europe & Central Asia Program
Committee to Protect Journalists
May 15, 2012
Journalists imprisoned in Central Asia
Chairmen Smith and Cardin, members of the commission:
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this important hearing on political prisoners in Central Asia. My name is Muzaffar Suleymanov, and I am the research associate for the Europe and Central Asia program at the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international, independently funded organization that defends press freedom worldwide. It is an honor to speak to you today.
I will focus my testimony on journalists currently imprisoned in retaliation for their work in two of the region’s countries, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Before I discuss CPJ’s concerns about these countries, I would like to commend U.S. President Barack Obama for endorsing the fight for press freedom in the statement on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
As Obama noted, societies worldwide begin to suffer when self-censorship—spurred by, among other threats, the fear of retaliatory imprisonment—becomes the guiding principle in local newsrooms or blogger’s apartments. As guarantors of human rights and freedoms, world leaders must hold Central Asian regimes responsible for denying global access to information by throwing critical reporters behind bars. “A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country,” Obama said. We fully support this call and urge immediate action toward the repressive regimes in Central Asia.
Despite their constitutional mandate to guarantee freedom of the press, regional governments have either sanctioned repression of the media, or been directly responsible for it. In the past decade, President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan firmly cemented its name as one of the worst jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia. At least five independent journalists remain in Uzbek prisons—in fact, until last November, Karimov’s own nephew languished in a psychiatric ward, put there in retaliation for his critical reporting. And authorities in Kyrgyzstan, where leaders have publicly declared their commitment to human rights and the rule of law, shamelessly imprisoned investigative journalist Azimjon Askarov for life. It is the only country in the region where authorities have handed a life sentence to a critic.
Although no other governments in the region have such a high record of imprisoned journalists, all of them are infamous for their anti-press policies.
In June 2006, Turkmen authorities arrested Ogulsapar Muradova, a local correspondent for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and sentenced her to six years in prison in August. She mysteriously died in jail a month later. Urinboy Usmonov, a BBC World Service correspondent, was one of two independent journalists imprisoned in Tajikistan in 2011 in direct connection to their work. Igor Vinyavsky, whose newspaper criticized a violent police crackdown on protesting oil workers in western Kazakhstan, spent two months in prison earlier this year on spurious extremism and anti-state charges. These cases, and others, illustrate the continuing threats that critical journalists face, which has gradually led to their use of self-censorship as a defense mechanism.
I shall now focus on the press freedom records of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan ranks sixth on CPJ’s 2012 list of the world’s top 10 censors of the press. Indeed, the country has long been in CPJ’s spotlight. The crackdown on critical journalists and media outlets peaked in the aftermath of the May 2005 massacre in the eastern city of Andijan, and resulted in the de facto eradication of the independent press in the country. Since then, authorities have banned reporting without accreditation and harassed the few remaining independent journalists; prosecuted journalists on defamation and ambiguous “insulting the nation” charges; and denied entry to foreign correspondents. Domestic access to critical news websites remains blocked and foreign broadcasts are also jammed, CPJ research shows.
But it is the imprisonment of journalists on fabricated criminal charges that secured Uzbekistan’s spot among the world’s leading enemies of the press.
In 1999, Muhammad Bekjanov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, journalists for the opposition newspaper Erk, were convicted on fabricated anti-state charges and sentenced to 14 and 15 years in prison, respectively. Both reporters have spent more time in jail than any other journalist worldwide, according to CPJ research. Earlier this year, authorities handed Bekjanov another five-year prison term just days before he was to be released. In addition, the government has not disclosed the health, condition, or status of Ruzimuradov. CPJ’s letter to the Embassy of Uzbekistan, sent last November, remains unanswered.
Two other journalists were given hefty prison terms following ostensibly marred prosecutions. Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, a contributor to the exile-run independent outlet Uznews, was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2008 after being charged with “drug possession for personal use.” Abdurakhmanov was arrested after his car was searched by police who said they found marijuana and opium in the trunk. Although lab results showed that the journalist had no traces of narcotics in his blood, and investigators were unable to establish chain of custody or find his fingerprints on the package, authorities jailed him after amending his charges. Abdurakhmanov was being tried and sentenced at the same time that Uzbek officials were persuading the European Union to lift its sanctions—imposed directly after the Andijan massacre—by arguing their commitment to human rights and press freedom.
In 2009, authorities sentenced Dilmurod Saiid, an independent journalist from Tashkent, to 12 and a half years in jail on fabricated charges of extortion and forgery. Following a tainted probe and trial—during which prosecution witnesses openly told the court they were being forced to testify against the journalist—authorities convicted Saiid and sentenced him to jail without his lawyer, family, or the press present. Nine months after his arrest, Saiid’s wife and daughter died in a car accident while traveling to the prison to visit him. His appeals were denied.
Press freedom groups, including CPJ, have repeatedly called on Karimov to ease his regime’s grip on the media and to release all of the imprisoned journalists. But the Uzbek government remains defiant.
Most recently, authorities prosecuted independent journalists Viktor Krymzalov and Yelena Bondar on defamation charges. According to news reports, the journalists were tried in connection to articles they neither contributed to nor wrote. Despite the absurdity of the charges and a lack of any implicating evidence, state-controlled courts sided with the prosecution and handed each reporter exorbitant fines. Krymzalov and Bondar were spared prison terms, but their sentencing clarifies the unofficial message from the Uzbek authorities: Journalism leads to jail.
Unlike its neighbor, Kyrgyzstan was not mentioned on CPJ’s prison census for the decade that our organization has compiled prison lists. In 2010, however, amid a violent ethnic conflict that deeply scarred southern Kyrgyzstan, regional authorities handed a life term to one of their fiercest critics, journalist and human rights activist Azimjon Askarov.
Askarov’s case depicts official retaliation against an investigative reporter who meticulously documented and exposed human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies. Askarov had reported on the fabrication of criminal cases, and the rape, torture, and murder of detainees by police in the southern Jalal-Abad region. Interviewed by CPJ through his lawyer, the journalist said that he had also witnessed police officers shooting and killing unarmed civilians during the 2010 ethnic conflict. He said he had shared his findings with regional and international news outlets and human rights groups, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Moscow-based group Memorial.
Askarov’s case was marred with numerous procedural violations. Although he was arrested on June 15, 2010, police did not document his detention until the next day and denied him access to his lawyer for five days. They also beat the journalist and his brother (who was also detained for two days) after he refused to hand over his reporting materials and help the authorities fabricate criminal cases against local residents. Askarov told CPJ that the police had also threatened to rape his wife and daughter, but that they had escaped. A U.S.-based physician who visited Askarov in jail last December said Askarov appeared “to have suffered severe and lasting physical injuries as a result of his arrest and incarceration.”
After Askarov refused to give police his reporting materials, which implicated local officials in compliance with the conflict, authorities charged him with incitement to ethnic hatred, calls to mass disorder, attempted kidnapping, illegal possession of ammunition, and complicity in a policeman’s murder.
The charges were based on accusations made by regional police, a local mayor, and two of the mayor’s employees—the officials who had long threatened to silence Askarov in retaliation for his work. Their statements were conflicting and lacked detail, and there was no physical evidence—such as video footage or statements by impartial witnesses—presented in court. The bullets, which investigators claimed to have found during a search of Askarov’s house, were not stored as required for material evidence. Authorities also refused to provide security to the defense witnesses, who could not give their statements in court due to attacks and death threats from the colleagues and relatives of the killed policeman. Authorities also neglected a report by Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman, whose commission investigated Askarov’s case and found him innocent on all charges. Appeals by CPJ and other press freedom and human rights groups were also ignored. In September 2010, a regional court convicted Askarov on all charges and imprisoned him for life. All of his appeals were denied by national courts, including the Supreme Court.
Askarov’s case is a vivid example of the post-conflict media climate in Kyrgyzstan, where the once-vibrant ethnic Uzbek-language media has virtually vanished after facing official intimidation, harassment, and politicized prosecutions, according to CPJ research.
(CPJ is preparing an investigative report that aims to shed light on Askarov’s retaliatory prosecution and fabricated charges, as well as the torture he suffered during custody.)
Mr. Chairman, CPJ urges the members of this commission to discuss these issues with high-ranking officials in the Obama administration who can, in turn, raise them in meetings with Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials.
We ask you to use the powers of your office to prevent any violations against press freedom in this politically unstable region. Silencing the media leaves the international community, at a minimum, under-informed about threats to the region such as rampant government corruption, human rights abuses, natural and manmade disasters, outbreaks of chronic diseases, and other issues that hamper the socioeconomic and political development of the region. The global community’s strategic interest in Central Asia must not overshadow the importance of free media in the fight against these and other regional threats. We call on you to demand the release of our imprisoned colleagues. Thank you.
to Muzaffar Suleymanov’s testimony
before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Cases of journalists imprisoned in Central Asia
Muhammad Bekjanov, Erk
Yusuf Ruzimuradov, Erk
Imprisoned: March 15, 1999
Bekjanov, editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, and Ruzimuradov, a reporter for the paper, continued to serve lengthy prison terms in Uzbekistan. Regional press reports said Bekjanov was serving his term at a penal colony outside Kasan in southwestern Uzbekistan, while Ruzimuradov was being held at a penal colony outside Navoi in central Uzbekistan.
Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov were detained in Ukraine—where they had lived in exile and produced their newspaper—and were extradited at the request of Uzbek authorities. Six months after their arrest, a Tashkent court sentenced Bekjanov to 14 years in prison and Ruzimuradov to a 15-year term on charges of publishing and distributing a banned newspaper. Both reporters were also convicted of participating in a banned political protest and attempting to overthrow the regime.
According to CPJ sources and news reports, both men were tortured before their trial started. After the verdict was announced in November 1999, the two were jailed in high-security penal colonies for individuals convicted of serious crimes.
In a 2003 interview conducted at a prison hospital where he was being treated for tuberculosis, Bekjanov described being beaten and tortured in prison. He suffered a broken leg and hearing loss as a result, according to The Associated Press and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Bekjanov’s wife, Nina Bekjanova, visited him in 2006 in prison, and told the independent news website Uznews that the journalist had lost most of his teeth due to repeated beatings. Exiled Uzbek journalists, local human rights workers, and other CPJ sources in the region said they had unsuccessfully tried to obtain updated information about the well-being of the journalists. Officials at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington did not respond to CPJ’s October 2011 request seeking information about the well-being of the two reporters.
Gayrat Mehliboyev, freelance
Imprisoned: July 24, 2002
Mehliboyev, a contributor to the state-owned weekly Hurriyat, was being held in a penal colony in the central city of Zarafshan. He was arrested in the capital, Tashkent, while reporting on a rally held in support of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In February 2003, seven months after his arrest, a court in Tashkent convicted Mehliboyev of anti-constitutional activities, participating in extremist religious organizations, and inciting religious hatred. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, a term that an appeals court reduced by six months.
Prosecutors introduced a 2001 Hurriyat article as evidence of his alleged crimes. In the article, Mehliboyev argued that instead of building a Western-style democracy in Uzbekistan, authorities should consider introducing religious rule. Prosecutors insisted in court that his arguments reflected the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir. At trial, Mehliboyev repeatedly said he was assaulted by guards at the pretrial facility where he was being held, local and international human rights groups reported at the time.
Mehliboyev was later sentenced to an additional prison term. In September 2006, the Tashkent regional court sentenced him to six more years on extremism charges, the independent news website Uznews reported. Prison authorities claimed the journalist advocated Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas to other inmates and kept religious writings in his cell. Mehliboyev denied the accusations; he said he had kept only private notes detailing mistreatment in prison.
Officials at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington did not respond to CPJ’s October 2011 request seeking updated information about Mehliboyev’s status and well-being.
Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, Uznews
Imprisoned: June 7, 2008
Abdurakhmanov, 61, a reporter for the independent news website Uznews, was being held at a penal colony outside the southern city of Karshi after he was convicted in a politicized prosecution on charges of possessing drugs with intent to sell. CPJ has determined the charges were fabricated.
Authorities in Nukus, in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic, detained Abdurakhmanov after traffic officers stopped his car and claimed they found four ounces (114 grams) of marijuana and less than a quarter ounce (about five grams) of opium in his trunk, Uznews reported. Abdurakhmanov denied possessing the drugs, and said police had planted them in retaliation for his reporting on corruption in the agency. Police questioned Abdurakhmanov extensively about his journalism, searched his home, and confiscated his personal computer, CPJ sources said.
The prosecution was marked by irregularities. Investigators failed to maintain chain of custody for the seized drugs, and they did not present fingerprints or other evidence that Abdurakhmanov ever handled the material, defense lawyer Rustam Tulyaganov told CPJ. Ignoring the lack of evidence, a court in Nukus convicted the journalist in October 2008 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Higher courts denied his appeals.
Abdurakhmanov had reported on corruption in regional law enforcement agencies, including the traffic police, for Uznews. He also contributed to the U.S. government-funded broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
In September 2011, authorities rebuffed Abdurakhmanov’s application for amnesty, citing alleged violations of penal colony rules, according to Uznews. Ilhom Nematov, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the United States, did not respond to CPJ’s October 2011 request for information on Abdurakhmanov’s well-being.
Dilmurod Saiid, freelance
Imprisoned: February 22, 2009
Saiid was serving a prison term of 12 and a half years on fabricated charges of extortion and forgery. Authorities arrested Saiid in his hometown, Tashkent, and placed him in detention in the central city of Samarkand after a local woman accused him of extorting US$10,000 from a local businessman. The accuser soon withdrew the accusation, saying she had been coerced, but authorities refused to release the journalist, according to Saiid’s lawyer, Ruhiddin Komilov.
In March 2009, Samarkand prosecutors said new witnesses had come forward to accuse Saiid of extortion, the independent regional news website Fergana News reported. Prosecutors also said several local farmers had accused Saiid of using their signatures to create fraudulent court papers. At Saiid’s trial, Fergana News reported, the farmers publicly recanted and said prosecutors had pressured them to testify against the journalist.
Komilov told CPJ that authorities failed to notify him of court hearing dates. In July 2009, a Tailak District Court judge sentenced the journalist in a closed proceeding without Komilov, Saiid’s family, or the press in attendance. Saiid was being held in a high-security penal colony outside the city of Navoi in central Uzbekistan.
Saiid was imprisoned in retaliation for his journalism, CPJ’s analysis found. Before his imprisonment, Saiid had reported on official abuses against farmers for the independent regional news website Voice of Freedom as well as for a number of local publications. As a member of the Tashkent-based human rights group Ezgulik, Saiid had also helped local farmers defend their rights in regional courts, local sources told CPJ.
In November 2009, the journalist’s wife and 6-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident while on their way to visit him in prison, regional press reports said. Ezgulik appealed for Saiid’s release on humanitarian grounds, but the appeal was denied. In September 2011, authorities rejected Saiid’s application for amnesty, citing alleged violations of penal colony rules, Uznews reported.
Officials at the Uzbekistan Embassy in Washington did not respond to CPJ’s October 2011 request seeking updated information about Saiid’s well-being.
Azimjon Askarov, freelance
Imprisoned: June 15, 2010
Askarov, a contributor to the independent news website Voice of Freedom and director of the local human rights group Vozdukh (Air), was serving a life term on a series of fabricated charges that included incitement to ethnic hatred and complicity in the murder of a police officer.
Authorities in the southern Jalal-Abad region arrested Askarov after a violent confrontation between police and villagers in Bazar-Korgon. One police officer was killed in the conflict. The episode took place amid deadly ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents, which engulfed all of southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The clashes left hundreds dead, and forced up to a half-million people to flee their homes. According to press reports and CPJ sources, Askarov was reporting on violence, destruction, looting, and human rights abuses in Bazar-Korgon at the time.
CPJ research shows that Askarov was imprisoned in retaliation for his journalism and human rights work. Before his arrest, Askarov had reported allegations that regional police had fabricated criminal cases against innocent people and had tortured detainees in custody. As a result of Askarov’s work, several senior law enforcement officials had been dismissed from their posts, according to Voice of Freedom and CPJ sources.
Regional prosecutors initially charged Askarov, 60, with organizing the riots, but later expanded his indictment to include complicity in the murder of a police officer, possession of ammunition and extremist literature, and attempted kidnapping, regional press reports said. Askarov denied the charges and said he had not been present at the scene. In June 2011, Askarov told the independent news website Fergana News that he came to the scene of the killing only after his neighbors alerted him to the events. During his trial, Askarov said, neighbors wanted to testify on his behalf, but regional police and prosecutors threatened them into silence.
Askarov, held by the same department whose officer was killed in Bazar-Korgon, was beaten by police while in custody, defense lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov told CPJ. Toktakunov said he himself was attacked by relatives of the deceased officer. Authorities did not investigate the reports, according to CPJ research.
On September 15, 2010, Judge Nurgazy Alimbayev pronounced Askarov guilty on all charges and sentenced him to life in prison. Toktakunov said the prosecution had failed to produce any evidence or witness testimony that implicated Askarov.