Uzbek journalist sentenced to seven years in prison

New York, May 1, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces the seven-year prison sentence handed down today to independent Uzbek journalist Umida Niyazova by a judge in Tashkent after a summary trial that was closed to the press and most of the public. Niyazova was convicted on charges related to her reporting on human rights and politics for a number of international news outlets.

Sergely District Court Judge Nizom Rustamov found Niyazova guilty on one count of smuggling subversive literature, along with a second count of distributing with the use of foreign aid material that threatens national security, according to local press reports and Andrea Berg, Uzbekistan director for Human Rights Watch. Niyazova had already pleaded guilty to illegally crossing the border with Kyrgyzstan; the judge entered a formal conviction on that charge as well.

“We are appalled by this travesty of justice and denounce it in the strongest terms,” CPJ Director Joel Simon said. “By sentencing our colleague Umida Niyazova to seven years in prison, authorities are cementing Uzbekistan’s ranking as the region’s top jailer of journalists and condemning the country to ever-growing international isolation. We call on Uzbek courts to overturn Niyazova’s sentence on appeal and release her.”

Berg, who spoke to CPJ from Tashkent, was among the very few allowed to monitor the proceedings on behalf of the defendant. One of Niyazova’s family members was also allowed to attend.

The prosecution had asked that Niyazova be given an eight-year sentence. The court did not consider a plea by Niyazova’s lawyer, Tatyana Davydova, who said the only violation her client had committed was crossing the border without a passport in January. Uzbek authorities had confiscated the journalist’s passport the month before. Davydova argued that a border violation is normally punishable under Uzbekistan’s administrative rather than criminal code, according to the independent news Web site Uznews.

The smuggling and distributing charges were based on her own reporting, along with her possession of human rights reports from international organizations. Niyazova covered politics and human rights in Uzbekistan for the Central Asia news Web site Oasis, a project of the Moscow-based media watchdog Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Niyazova has contributed reporting to Freedom House and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and done translation work for Human Rights Watch and Internews Network, according to CPJ sources.

Niyazova was taken to a Tashkent prison immediately after the hearing; she and Davydova have 10 days to appeal. If the verdict is upheld, Niyazova may be transferred to a prison colony out of the city, Berg told CPJ.

The second of only three hearings in Niyazova’s trial took place yesterday without prior notice to Niyazova’s counsel or family. Davydova was only given 30 minutes to prepare for the court session, Human Rights Watch reported.

Niyazova has already spent more than three months in jail, where colleagues say she has been mistreated. She was arrested by Tashkent authorities on January 22 as she crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan. Authorities held her incommunicado for four days, and sent her to a Tashkent prison on January 26 where she has been held since.

She is among six journalists jailed in Uzbekistan today. Press freedom in Uzbekistan has sharply deteriorated since President Islam Karimov expelled independent journalists affiliated with foreign-funded media in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown in Andijan in May 2005. Uzbek authorities have not responded to several CPJ inquires regarding the jailed journalists’ location and condition.