“There are strong reasons to believe that Alisher Saipov was murdered because of his journalism,” said CPJ board member Andrew Alexander of Cox Newspapers, who was part of the delegation. “For that reason, it is imperative that Kyrgyz authorities aggressively pursue an unbiased, professional investigation that embraces the theory that he was executed simply because he was pursuing truth.”
Twenty-six-year-old Saipov, editor of the independent Uzbek-language weekly Siyosat (Politics),and a contributor to several regional and international news outlets, was shot three times at a close range in downtown Osh, a city bordering Uzbekistan, on October 24.
Despite his relative youth, Saipov was a prominent journalist who covered political and social issues for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and regional news Web sites such as Ferghana and Uznews. An ethnic Uzbek, Saipov reported extensively on Uzbekistan’s social and political issues. In his articles, Saipov was openly critical of the policies of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and criticized his government’s crackdown on human rights.
In the meeting with Sydykova, CPJ emphasized the need for Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to demonstrate his commitment to justice in this high-profile case by personally and forcefully condemning the murder and by pledging every resource available to solve the crime. Kyrgyzstan is one of the freest Central Asian societies in terms of its independent press; it should not join the ranks of Russia, Azerbaijan, or Tajikistan, whose records have been tainted by impunity in journalist murders, the CPJ delegation said.
The delegation also told the ambassador that it was concerned about a possible bias in the official murder probe. On Tuesday, less than a week after the killing, the Kyrgyz Ministry of the Interior issued a statement summing up the investigation’s preliminary findings. The release, which was widely covered in the local press, placed a heavy emphasis on Saipov’s alleged links to the banned Islamic groups Hizb ut-Tahrir and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It detailed the contents of Saipov’s hard drive, and listed the books, leaflets, and other writings seized from his office after the murder. The release upset Saipov’s colleagues and friends, who condemned the official claims as false and unprofessional. Saipov had indeed interviewed members of the Hizb-ut Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for various articles; his contacts with them were related to his work as a reporter, his colleagues said.
“Kyrgyz authorities must not make premature statements before thoroughly exploring every feasible lead and motive, including the possible involvement of Uzbek security services in Alisher Saipov’s killing,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova, who led the delegation. “Early claims could prejudice the investigation and send a dangerous signal about the Kyrgyz authorities’ commitment to justice.”
Sydykova told CPJ that the Kyrgyz government is “fully committed” to investigating every lead in Saipov’s murder and that her government has committed some of its best investigators to the case. She pledged to take the delegation’s concerns to her superiors, including CPJ’s request that the investigation consider the possibility that Uzbek authorities were involved in this case.
Saipov had reported on the aftermath of the mass killings in the Uzbek city of Andijan in May 2005, when Uzbek government troops shot at crowds of civilians who were protesting Karimov’s regime. The official crackdown resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and led to the mass exodus of Uzbeks seeking refuge in Kyrgyzstan.
Prior to his murder, Saipov had received anonymous threats warning him to stop reporting, and he had been followed by unknown people, he told his colleagues. An Uzbekistan state television channel and several publications recently ran pieces that smeared Saipov as a provocateur who tried to destabilize Uzbekistan with his reporting.
CPJ Washington Representative Frank Smyth joined Alexander and Ognianova in meeting with the ambassador.