Stockholm, May 10, 2021 – Uzbekistan authorities should immediately release journalist Otabek Sattoriy, not contest his appeal, and allow all journalists to work freely and without fear of reprisal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Earlier today, the Muzrabot District Court in the southern Surkhondaryo region convicted Sattoriy, a blogger who covers local corruption allegations, on three counts of extortion and two counts of defamation, and sentenced him to six years and six months in prison, according to news reports.
In a statement released on YouTube following the sentencing, and in a phone interview with CPJ, the journalist’s lawyer Umidbek Davlatov said that his client denied all those charges and intends to appeal.
“Uzbek authorities’ conviction of anti-corruption blogger Otabek Sattoriy on trumped-up extortion and defamation charges is a clear attempt to frighten the press away from covering sensitive issues as presidential elections grow near,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should not contest Sattoriy’s appeal and should not jail journalists in retaliation for their work.”
Police arrested Sattoriy on January 30 and accused him of extorting a local businessman, who said that the journalist threatened to publish corruption allegations about him unless he bought Sattoriy a cell phone, as CPJ documented at the time. The charges were expanded as more people made additional defamation and extortion complaints, according to a March 1 statement by the Interior Ministry’s Investigations Department.
Judge To’lqin Abdiraimov today acquitted Sattoriy on one charge of insult and three charges of extorting workers at two gas distribution companies, but convicted him on the remaining three extortion and two defamation charges, according to reports.
The judge applied a more lenient sentence than was necessary, as one of those convictions—stemming from an allegation that Sattoriy had extorted a construction firm manager into giving his family an upgrade on two apartments—carried a potential sentence of 10 to 15 years, according to news reports.
According to a CPJ review of his Facebook page and Telegram and YouTube channels, Sattoriy has reported on alleged corrupt practices at the state-owned gas company Hududgazta’minot, whose employees were involved in the case, and repeatedly criticized the mayor of Termez city, Isroil Xudoyberdiev, and the Surkhondaryo regional governor, To’ra Bobolov, for their alleged mismanagement.
Xudoyberdiev was a key witness in the apartment case, and at one point was a claimant in that case, according to news reports and the Interior Ministry statement. Davlatov and the blogger’s father, Abdumannon Sattoriy, told CPJ in phone interviews that they were certain the charges were fabricated in retaliation for his reporting.
In the closing arguments on May 4, Sattoriy’s lawyers argued that the prosecution had failed to provide any material evidence of extortion, relying instead on the testimony of the claimants and others with an interest in the case, according to a video recording of the hearing.
CPJ emailed the Uzbek Interior Ministry, Hududgazta’minot, and the Termez and Surkhondaryo governments for comment, but did not receive any replies. After publication, CPJ’s email to Termez city authorities bounced back with an error message; CPJ then called that office and messaged it on Facebook, but did not receive any replies.
[Editors’ note: This article has been updated in its last paragraph to reflect CPJ’s attempts to contact Termez authorities.]