Uzbek reporter sentenced to six years in prison despite witness reversal

New York, October 5, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged by the six-year prison sentence given today to independent reporter Ulugbek Khaidarov following a two-day trial in which the prosecution’s lead witness reportedly affirmed the journalist’s innocence. Khaidarov, whose reports in independent foreign publications were critical of government and business officials, was found guilty of extortion by a judge in the Jizzakh City Court, according to international news reports and CPJ sources.

“Ulugbek Khaidarov has been arrested, tried, and convicted on a bogus accusation that does not disguise the government’s true intention of silencing a critical reporter,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the judicial authorities to hear our colleague’s appeal and reverse this travesty of justice.”

The trial, before Judge Shukhrat Khudoiberdiyev, was not open to the public, although Khaidarov’s family members were allowed to attend. The independent news Web site Uznews, citing a source it did not identify, said prosecution witness Rakhima Abdullayeva, who had accused Khaidarov of extortion, testified that the journalist was not guilty of the alleged crime. Khaidarov did not have a lawyer at the trial, and it was unclear whether Abdullayeva was asked whether she fabricated the allegation.

News reports said Abdullayeva had placed an envelope containing US$400 in Khaidarov’s pocket seconds before the reporter’s arrest on September 14; Khaidarov said it was a set-up and that he immediately threw the money on the ground.

Khaidarov’s relatives said they plan to appeal today’s decision, Uznews reported.

Just before his arrest, Khaidarov wrote several articles about unpaid salaries at a local marble factory managed by Abdullayeva. His also heavily criticized the administrative head of the Bakhmalsky region of Jizzakh in a recent article headlined “Where did the $100,000 go?”

After his arrest, 20 police officers searched the journalist’s house, seizing books and handwritten notes, according to international news reports. Khaidarov formerly reported for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and Internews Network, foreign-based organizations that have drawn the ire of the government.

Family members have reported that Khaidarov lost weight while in custody, that his speech has been slurred, and that he has appeared disoriented. See CPJ’s September 26 alert:

Human rights activist Surat Iskramov said he believes authorities pressured the journalist to refuse a state-appointed lawyer, the Moscow-based Central Asia news Web site Ferghana reported. See CPJ’s September 19 alert.

Colleagues say that the government’s campaign against the journalist began long before his arrest. A former IWPR colleague, Dzhamshid Karimov, said in a published report in June that he and Khaidarov had been under government surveillance for three weeks. Both had reported on the killings of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city of Andijan last year.

The same Jizzakh court last month ordered Karimov, nephew of President Islam Karimov, to be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. Government officials have not released any information about the court proceedings nor have they permitted independent experts to examine Karimov, according to international press reports.

Since the brutal Andijan crackdown in May 2005, independent journalists and human rights activists have been labeled “terrorists” and “traitors” by the government and its allies. Regulations adopted in February gave the Foreign Ministry wide discretion to issue warnings to foreign correspondents, revoke their accreditation and visas, and expel them. It is now illegal for Uzbek journalists to engage in any form of “professional activity” with outlets not accredited by the Foreign Ministry, according to CPJ research.