Authorities alter charge to justify journalist’s arrest


New York, August 5, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed to learn that police in the western Uzbek city of Nukus have brought another charge against an independent journalist to justify his arrest and detention, after initially bringing charges of drug use.

On August 2, investigators in Nukus acknowledged that Salidzhon Abdurakhmonov’s blood test results revealed no sign of drug use but instead of releasing the journalist, they slammed him with another charge—drug possession with intent to sell, which carries up to 20 years in prison, as opposed to the initial charge, which carried five years, independent news Web site Uznews reported.

Abdurakhmonov, who contributed to Uznews, covering economic, human rights, and social issues in the region, was arrested on June 7, when traffic police in Nukus stopped his car for ID check, searched it, and announced they had found drugs in the trunk. Abdurakhmonov was charged with drug possession for personal use and taken into custody; the same day police searched his home and confiscated his laptop and notes.

“When the Uzbek authorities can’t even substantiate their own bogus charges, they merely bring a more serious indictment to silence critical journalists,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Salidzhon Abdurakhmonov should be released immediately, and all charges against him dropped.”

On Thursday, international rights group Amnesty International declared Abdurakhmonov a prisoner of conscience, who has been “detained solely for carrying out his human rights activities and exercising his right to freedom of expression,” and called for his immediate release.

According to Uznews, which interviewed Abdurakhmonov’s family, authorities in Nukus failed to prove the earlier charge and had to release him because of that and because his pre-trial detention term, legally set for two months, had expired. Instead, last week investigators announced that Abdurakhmonov had intended to sell the drugs, and charged him with “intent to commit a crime” and “possession of drugs with the purpose of sale.”

Abdurakhmonov’s brother, who represents him as a defense lawyer, told Uznews that local authorities cannot release the journalist because there is an “order from above.” He also said that the journalist’s negative blood test results were available in June, shortly after his arrest, but authorities ignored them and continued to hold the journalist.

“He never used drugs in his life and this charge of drugs possession is fabricated—its sole purpose is to punish Salidzhon for his journalism and rights activism,” Abdurakhmonov’s brother told Uznews.

Before his arrest, Abdurakhmonov told Uznews editor and CPJ International Press Freedom awardee Galima Bukharbaeva that he had been cautioned from acquaintances to be careful what he writes, but he was not specific. In his articles for Uznews, Abdurakhmonov often criticized local authorities and covered corruption in the regional traffic police. He also freelanced for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Investigators carefully examined all the journalist’s materials and listened to the audiotapes they confiscated from his house, hoping to find “anti-governmental content,” the journalist’s lawyer told Uznews. Abdurakhmonov’s brother also told Uznews he called on the investigators to check for fingerprints on the plastic bags that contained the drugs, hoping to prove they were planted, but authorities refused to do so.

Uznews editor and CPJ International Press Freedom awardee Galima Bukharbaeva said that “with [Abdurakhmonov’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.”

International broadcasters, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, news Web site Ferghana, and others, have pulled their reporters out of the country because of its repressive media climate, so cited independent new Web site Uznews when covering Abdurakhmonov’s arrest. No other local media outlet covered the case.