Two independent journalists jailed in Uzbekistan

New York, February 26, 2009–Two independent journalists arrested on trumped-up charges should be released immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On Sunday, prosecutors in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, detained Dilmurod Saiid on charges of extortion, the independent news Web site Uznews reported. Saiid writes for a number of independent and pro-opposition Web sites, local CPJ sources said. In a separate case, a court in the eastern Andijan region charged independent journalist Kushodbek Usmon with defamation and insult on Monday, the regional news Web site Voice of Freedom reported.

“We call on Uzbek authorities to immediately release Dilmurod Saiid and Kushodbek Usmon and stop harassing the handful of independent journalists that remain in the country,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Uzbekistan is the leading jailer of journalists in Eurasia. The government of Islam Karimov has shown an unrelenting hostility toward any independent reporting and illustrated it once again by these most recent arrests.”

From Tashkent, Saiid was taken for interrogation to the central city of Samarkand, according to Uznews. Prosecutors detained Saiid after a witness testified against him; she later retracted her statement. Samarkand resident Marguba Dzhurayeva reported him to the authorities, saying she had extorted US$10,000 from a local businessman on Saiid’s order, Voice of Freedom said. The journalist protested the charge, saying he had never met Dzhurayeva, his defense lawyer, Rukhiddin Kamilov, told Voice of Freedom. On Wednesday, Dzhurayeva retracted her earlier statement and told prosecutors she had not received orders from Saiid and had not extorted any money, Kamilov said. However, authorities continued to hold Saiid in a pre-trial detention facility in Samarkand; he faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, Voice of Freedom reported.

Local human rights activists told CPJ that they believe Saiid is being persecuted for reporting on the illegal confiscation of farmers’ property by local authorities in the Samarkand region.

Usmon was initially taken into custody on January 13 on a charge of hooliganism; prosecutors then changed the charge to defamation and insult without any explanation, Voice of Freedom said. It is unclear whom Usmon has allegedly defamed. Held incommunicado, the journalist faces up to three and a half years in prison if convicted. Usmon’s arrest followed a series of critical articles he wrote about high-ranking police officers.

Information from Uzbekistan is hard to come by because of severe restrictions on independent reporting. As a result, the few functioning outlets are forced to operate underground. Communication with international media officially unaccredited in Uzbekistan is punishable by law. After the massacre in Andijan in 2005, a large number of international media and rights organizations were forced to leave the country because of harassment of their staff.

With eight journalists currently behind bars, Uzbekistan has cemented its ranking as the top jailer of journalists in Europe and Central Asia, CPJ research shows.