The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) believes that the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov are part of a politically motivated campaign to suppress press freedom in Uzbekistan.
Police and the security service have threatened and harassed Sharipov for several years because of critical articles he has written for the Russian news agency Prima and for the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan’s Web site (www.uiju.org) describing police abuses and press freedom violations. Many of Sharipov’s articles were published on the Internet in English, making them far more accessible to an international audience compared with articles written by other Uzbek journalists and human rights activists.
Police arrested Sharipov, 25, on May 26 in the capital, Tashkent, and charged him with sodomy, having sexual relations with minors, and managing prostitutes, according to local and international press reports.
According to international press reports, Sharipov, who is openly gay, denied the charges of having sexual relations with minors and managing prostitutes, saying that authorities had threatened him with torture to get a confession. According to a report by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture who visited Uzbekistan last year to inspect several prisons, physical abuse of prisoners is a “systematic” problem in the country. Furthermore, international human rights organizations report that Uzbek authorities commonly use fabricated criminal charges to silence government critics.
Two of Sharipov’s colleagues, Oleg Sarapulov and Azamat Mumankulov who were arrested with him but later released, told human rights activists that authorities had intimidated them in an effort to force them to testify against Sharipov, The Associate Press (AP) reported.
While homosexuality remains a criminal offense and gays face regular police harassment in Uzbekistan, prosecution of such cases is rare. As a result, local journalists and human rights activists suspect the charges against Sharipov were an effort to silence his criticism of authorities.
As an independent organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ is particularly concerned about numerous irregularities that have been reported in Sharipov’s trial, which started on July 23 behind closed doors at the Mirzo-Ulugbek district court in Tashkent, according to local and international press reports.
Judge Ganisher Makhmudov ruled that the trial would be closed to the public to protect the privacy of minors who were allegedly victims in the case, AP reported. Human rights advocates, however, believe the trial was closed to prevent public scrutiny of the case.
According to AP, Sharipov’s lawyers argued that their client could not receive a fair trial because he had criticized the Mirzo-Ulugbek district court and police in previous news articles. Judge Makhmudov rejected the lawyers’ request to have the trial moved to a different court in Tashkent.
On August 8, the trial took a bizarre turn when Sharipov reportedly plead guilty to sodomy, waived his right to legal counsel, and expressed his readiness to apologize for criticizing President Islam Karimov and other Uzbek authorities in his articles, according to a member of Sharipov’s defense team. On August 13, the Mirzo-Ulugbek district court found Sharipov guilty of all three charges and sentenced him to five and a half years in prison.
Given the U.N.’s allegations that torture is commonplace in Uzbekistan and that Sharipov has said that authorities threatened him with torture to pressure him to confess, CPJ believes that Sharipov’s confession is unreliable and should be dismissed, along with the three guilty charges and the prison sentence.
We call on you to immediately release Ruslan Sharipov from custody and arrange for an independent and impartial review of the charges and evidence against him in a safe setting, and to ensure that prosecutors aggressively investigate whether torture was used to coerce a confession.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper