Uzbek reporter freed after serving term for ‘insulting’ officer

New York, February 28, 2006—Nosir Zokirov, a correspondent for the Uzbek service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was released from prison on Sunday after serving a six-month sentence for insulting a security officer, the broadcaster reported.

Zokirov, 55, a veteran RFE/RL correspondent in the eastern city of Namangan, was detained, tried without counsel or witnesses, sentenced, and imprisoned all on August 26, 2005. He was tried under Article 140 of Uzbekistan’s criminal code, which makes insulting a member of the security services punishable by prison.

The charge stemmed from an August 6 phone conversation with a National Security Service agent in which Zokirov protested pressure that agents had put on poet Khaidarali Komilov. In an RFE/RL interview with Zokirov that month, Komilov had criticized Uzbek authorities for violently cracking down on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijan in May. Government troops killed hundreds of demonstrators on May 13, 2005, according to independent accounts.

After his release, Zokirov told RFE/RL that he was not mistreated in prison but felt “isolated” and could not receive any information about his family and colleagues.

Uzbek authorities denied accreditation to RFE/RL in December, effectively silencing the last independent broadcaster reporting in the country. The Foreign Ministry refused to renew accreditation for the agency’s Tashkent bureau and withdrew the press cards of its correspondents in Uzbekistan. Two other news organizations, the BBC and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, were forced to close their bureaus in Uzbekistan last year due to government harassment. Numerous journalists were arrested and detained for brief periods in the crackdown following the Andijan massacre.

“The government crackdown on independent journalists has created an information vacuum in Uzbekistan,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “While we are relieved that our colleague Nosir Zokirov is released, we’re appalled at the politicized use of Uzbek courts to muzzle reporters. Zokirov should not have served a day in prison.”