New York, April 18, 2005—An Uzbek reporter for the state-run weekly newspaper Hurriyat (Liberty) has been criminally charged with “undermining the constitutional order” and faces up to 20 years in prison, according to local and international press reports.
Sobirdjon Yakubov, 22, a Muslim, was detained in the capital, Tashkent, on April 11 on suspicions of religious extremism. He was charged three days later, Alisher Sharafutdinov, deputy minister of the interior, announced at a press conference in the capital. The formal charge is based on Yakubov’s alleged religious activities. The government did not describe those purported actions in detail, but local reports cited Yakubov’s alleged participation in an illegal organization.
Yakubov’s colleagues say the charges against him are politicized and he is being punished for writing about Islam and advocating democratic reforms, according to press reports. He recently visited the holy city of Mecca and published a series of articles about his pilgrimage, titled “A Journey to Dreamland,” local reports said.
Yakubov’s colleagues speculate that authorities might also have targeted him for a March article about slain Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze. In the article, Yakubov said Gongazde’s death “became a driving force [for Ukrainians] to realize the necessity of democratic reforms and freedom.” According to some of Yakubov’s colleagues, Uzbek authorities might have interpreted that as a call for regime changes in Uzbekistan, local reports said.
The Tashkent-based news Web site uznews.net reported that Yakubov called the Hurriyat newsroom on April 11 to inform his colleagues of his detention, but for four days police denied holding him.
“We are very concerned about our colleague. If Sobirdjon Yakubov is being held, as it appears, for expressing his religious or political beliefs, he should be released immediately,” said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Yakubov is the second journalist writing for Hurriyat who has been arrested on charges of “anti-constitutional activity” in the past two years. Gayrat Mehliboyev, a 23-year-old freelancer, was arrested in February 2003, convicted, and sentenced to seven years in prison for an April 2001 article published in Hurriyat that questioned the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
Uzbekistan remains Europe and Central Asia’s leading jailer of journalists, with four imprisoned at the end of 2004.