CPJ urges Uzbek court to reject politicized prosecution, acquit journalist

New York, October 9, 2008–An Uzbek court should reject the politicized prosecution of independent journalist Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov and acquit him on fabricated drug possession charges, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Prosecutors are seeking a 17-year prison term for Abdurakhmanov, defense lawyer Rustam Tulyaganov told CPJ today. Nukus District Court Judge Kadyrbay Dzhamolov, who began hearing testimony last month, is expected to announce a verdict on Friday.

Since his arrest on June 7 Abdurakhmanov protested the charge and said drugs were planted to silence his critical reporting. He covered economic, human rights, and social issues for the independent news Web site Uznews. CPJ and several other press freedom and human rights organizations have called the prosecution politically motivated.

“We call on the court to acquit Salidzhon Abdurakhmanov. These bogus charges are clearly designed to silence a critical journalist,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Its history of bringing trumped-up charges against independent media has made Uzbekistan the leading jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia with six behind bars.”

Abdurakhmanov was arrested after traffic police in the western city of Nukus stopped his car, opened the trunk, and claimed to find 114 grams of marijuana and 5 grams of opium, Uznews reported. He was initially charged with “drug possession intended for personal use.” Abdurakhmanov denied the charge and insisted on a blood test. In August, investigators acknowledged that the test found no traces of drugs–and then increased the charge to “drug possession with the intent to sell,” according to Uznews.

Tulyaganov said authorities failed to establish a proper chain of custody for the seized drugs. No evidence was offered showing that Abdurakhmanov’s fingerprints were on the seized bag. Tulyaganov said prosecutors presented video purporting to show the seizure. But he said the video lacked necessary context. For example, a police dog said to have been present during the stop and to have barked at the odor of drugs was not seen at all on the video.

During the preliminary investigation, authorities questioned Abdurakhmanov primarily about his sources of information and the news outlets to which he contributed, said the journalist’s brother Bakhrom, a lawyer who has helped with the defense. Galima Bukharbaeva, editor of Uznews and a 2005 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee, said police also searched the journalist’s house and confiscated his personal computer along with literature on banned Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Salikh.

International human rights groups have called on Uzbek authorities to release Abdurakhmanov. In July, Amnesty International declared Abdurakhmanov 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. Last month, Human Right Watch said that Abdurakhmanov’s “arrest is yet another example of the Uzbek government’s policy of silencing critics.”

The case comes to a head just before the European Union resumes talks on the status of sanctions–notably an arms embargo–that were imposed against Uzbekistan in 2005. The sanctions were imposed after Uzbek government troops killed hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan. In April, EU External Relations Council urged Uzbek authorities to “take steps to guarantee freedom of expression and to allow further liberalization of mass media” in the country.