Independent journalist arrested on allegations of drug possession

New York, June 13, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by the June 7 arrest of Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov, an independent Uzbek journalist for a number of international news outlets.

Police arrested Abdurakhmanov in the city of Nukus for alleged drug possession, independent news Web site Uznews reported. If convicted, Abdurakhmanov faces up to five years in prison, Uznews editor and CPJ International Press Freedom awardee Galima Bukharbaeva told CPJ. Abdurakhmanov was reporting on economic, human rights, and social issues and Uzbek prisons for Uznews at the time of his arrest.  

Bukharbaeva told CPJ that police also searched the journalist’s house on Saturday and confiscated his personal computer along with literature on banned Uzbek opposition leader Mukhammad Salikh.

“We are concerned that the police are using the charge of drug possession to silence a critical journalist,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “We call on the authorities to free Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov immediately and explain the reason for his arrest and confiscation of his journalistic materials.”

Abdurakhmanov has also freelanced for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

“With [Abdurakhmanov’s] arrest, we lost our sole reporter in the region and I doubt we will find anybody else–people are simply scared of retribution from the local authorities,” Bukharbaeva told CPJ.

Before his arrest, Abdurakhmanov told Bukharbaeva he had received some words of caution from acquaintances to be careful about what he writes, but he was not specific.

Abdurakhmanov’s brother told Burkharbaeva that on Saturday traffic police in Nukus stopped the journalist; while one officer was checking his ID, another one pointed at drug-sniffing dogs, saying they sensed something, and called for reinforcement. Police officers arrived and announced they had found about 6 grams of opium and 14 grams of marijuana under the driver’s seat.

“It is absurd–my brother never touched drugs in his life, they planted them in his car,”Abdurakhmanov’s brother told Uznews. Despite Abdurakhmanov’s protest that the drugs were planted, he was immediately arrested and taken into custody, Uznews reported.

Abdurakhmanov’s arrest took place the weekend before the opening of a media conference in Tashkent. The conference was conceived by the Council of the European Union as a forum for dialogue between Uzbekistan and the international community on the state of human rights and civil society, but it took place without the participation of independent journalists and international rights groups.

Uzbekistan has turned into an informational black hole since authorities cracked down on the independent press days after government troops violently suppressed a civil protest in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005. Reporters who witnessed the crackdown or reported on the events have been targeted for their work. They and their families have been subjected to harassment and surveillance by security services, and dozens of them have fled the country for fear of their safety. The handful of local independent journalists who have remained in Uzbekistan now report only clandestinely; most do so under pseudonyms. In the months after the massacre, international reporters had their accreditation revoked and were chased out of the country. Their local correspondents were stifled through intimidation and official pressure.