Uzbek appeals court should overturn harsh sentence

New York, September 3, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Samarkand Regional Court in central Uzbekistan to overturn on appeal a 12 and a half year jail sentence given to independent journalist Dilmurod Saiid. His appeal is scheduled for review September 8. 

On July 30, the Tailak District Court in Samarkand sentenced Saiid on charges of extortion and forgery, regional news Web site Ferghana reported. He was sentenced in a closed court without his defense lawyer, family, or the press in attendance. Saiid covered corruption in the regional government and abuse in the agricultural sector for a number of local newspapers and independent news Web sites; he also worked with a local rights group called Ezgulik to help defend farmers’ rights in regional courts.

The journalist spent six months in pretrial detention after regional prosecutors seized him from his home in the capital, Tashkent, in February and brought him to Samarkand, according to local news reports.

Uzbek authorities hold at least six other journalists behind bars, CPJ research shows.

“By slamming Dilmurod Saiid with a heavy sentence, the Uzbek authorities have cemented their position as the worst jailer of journalists in Central Asia,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “To roll back this shameful record, the court must overturn this sentence based on fabricated charges and release Saiid immediately.”

Saiid’s lawyer, Ruhiddin Komilov, told CPJ that prosecutors did not prove any of the charges against the journalist in court. The criminal case was riddled with procedural violations from the beginning to end, regional press and rights groups reported.

According to regional news Web site Voice of Freedom, a local resident admitted she had slandered the journalist by reporting him to the authorities, alleging that she had extorted US$10,000 from a local businessman on Saiid’s order. She withdrew her statement in February. But prosecutors did not include this retraction when they presented their evidence; they also did not inform Saiid’s lawyer of the hearing date.

In March, prosecutors said another witness gave a statement against the journalist alleging he had extorted US$5,000 from him in 2004, Ferghana reported. According to Ferghana, the authorities added forgery to the initial extortion charge based on a statement from a group of local farmers who said the journalist had collected their stamps and signatures to forge documents to use in court.

Most of the witnesses declared during the hearing that their former statements against the journalist were falsified, according to the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch.