Uzbek journalist in solitary confinement after 17 years in prison

New York, December 19, 2016–Uzbek authorities should immediately release editor Muhammad Bekjanov and reporter Yusuf Ruzimuradov, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Bekjanov’s relatives today told CPJ that they learned that Bekjanov had been moved to solitary confinement. The two have been imprisoned longer than any other journalists in the world, according to CPJ research.

Bekjanov’s relatives told CPJ that they were not allowed to visit the journalist on December 13, for their most recent, regularly scheduled visit, and that they learned then that prison authorities had earlier–they did not specify when–moved him to solitary confinement. Authorities at the prison, near the southwestern Uzbek city of Zarafshan, told the family that Bekjanov was not allowed to receive visitors until January 10, 2017.

Ukraine extradited Bekjanov, who edited the pro-opposition newspaper Erk from exile there, and Yusuf Ruzimuradov, a reporter for the newspaper, in March 1999. In September of that year, a Tashkent court sentenced the two to 14 and 15 years in prison, respectively, on charges of publishing and distributing a banned newspaper, participating in a banned political protest, and attempting to overthrow the government. In January 2012, when Bekjanov had completed most of his sentence, authorities extended his sentence by five years for having broken unspecified prison rules.

Yusuf Ruzimuradov was due to be released in May 2014, but authorities extended his sentence for an additional three years, according to media reports. Human rights groups report that similar last-minute extensions of sentences are common for political prisoners in Uzbekistan.

“Muhammad Bekjanov and Yusuf Ruzimuradov should not have spent a single day in prison. It is unspeakably cruel that having imprisoned the two for more than 17 years–longer than any other journalists in the world–jailors have now moved Bekjanov to solitary confinement,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “One wonders what Uzbek authorities could possibly fear from a couple of aging journalists who have been locked away for such a long time.”

Erk (“Liberty”) was the newspaper of the opposition party by the same name. Bekjanov’s brother, Muhammad Salih, the leader of the party, was a presidential candidate in 1991 and has lived in exile since 1993. An Uzbek court in 1999 convicted him in absentia of terrorism charges. Erk covered economic hardship in Uzbekistan, forced labor in its cotton fields, and the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Another of Bekjanov’s brothers, Maksud Bekjon, told CPJ he had “no doubt” that there was “a political reason” behind the decision to put the editor in solitary confinement. “They are punishing him and preparing the ground to extend his term yet again.”

The journalist’s daughter, Aygul Bekjan, who lives in exile, told CPJ that Bekjanov, who is 62, suffers from multiple health problems. “His health is very poor. He has an inguinal hernia and needs surgery. His teeth are missing, and because of that he has stomach problems. He is very underweight,” Bekjan told CPJ today.