In April 2021 Uzbekistan police arrested journalist Elyor Tojiboev after prosecutors accused him and two colleagues of entering a judge’s office without permission. He was released pending trial and in November he was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of interfering with court proceedings and coercing a state official.
Tojiboev worked as a reporter for independent local news site Effect.uz between November 2019 and May 2021, Effect.uz’s chief editor Akmal Eshonkhonov told CPJ in a telephone interview. The news site often films court hearings and hearings involving local authorities, sometimes interceding on behalf of the citizens involved.
On January 11, Tojiboev and fellow Effect.uz reporters Akbar Nurimbetov and Hamid Ahmedov accompanied the relatives of a man on trial for fraud to Termez District Court in the southern Surkhondaryo region, to report on the man’s case, according to news reports, Eshonkhonov, and a statement by the Supreme Court.
The journalists told U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service Ozodlik they entered the courthouse with the permission of the security officers, but left when a judge issued a ruling ordering them to leave. Footage posted on Effect.uz’s YouTube channel shows the journalists and the defendant’s family members arguing with security officers and with the judge outside and inside of the judge’s office and continuing to argue with the judge in the courtroom.
The following day, the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan issued a statement accusing Tojiboev and his Effect.uz colleagues of disobeying police officers guarding the courthouse and forcibly entering the judge’s office. The statement accused Tojiboev of then entering court without permission, where he and the defendant’s relatives “caused a disturbance” and “violated courtroom order,” and said that a complaint was filed, though did not specify details of the complaint.
In an interview with local news site Kun.uz, Termez District Court Judge Odilbek Begimqulov said he filed a complaint with prosecutors against the journalists.
Police investigators in Termez questioned Tojiboev, Nurimbetov and Ahmedov as witnesses to the incident on two occasions between March and February, Eshonkhonov said.
On April 6, the Office of the Prosecutor-General of Uzbekistan said Tojiboev and Nurimbetov had failed to obey repeated summons to attend questioning over the January 11 incident and stated that warrants had been issued for their arrest, according to news reports and a statement by Effect.uz.
The prosecutor’s office charged Tojiboev and Nurimbetov in absentia with “resisting a state official” and “interfering in court proceedings.”
The journalists denied the charges, according to Eshonkhonov and news reports. Tojiboev and Nurimbetov also denied ignoring police summons, saying that they were both at home ill and had not received the summons since they were sent to their place of work, according to a report by Effect.uz, which showed a medical certificate attesting that Tojiboev had tested positive for COVID-19.
On April 8, police arrested Tojiboev at his home in Farg’ona, according to his employer and news reports. The following day, police transferred Tojiboev to a police station in the city of Termiz, where they questioned him and Nurimbetov for around 12 hours and released them pending trial, according to the journalists’ employer, news reports, Eshonkhonov, a Telegram statement by a spokesperson for the prosecutor-general’s office and video statements by the journalists on Effect.uz’s YouTube page.
Tojibev began working for independent news site Taftish.uz in May 2021.
On May 27, Tojiboev, Nurimbetov, and Ahmedov’s trial began at Qashqadaryo Regional Court, according to news reports and a Telegram statement by the Supreme Court press office. At the trial, prosecutors added additional charges, charging all three journalists with “coercing a state official to renounce official duties or to commit unlawful actions” and charging Tojiboev and Nurimbetov with criminal defamation and criminal insult, according to these sources and a subsequent Supreme Court statement.
On November 3, Qashqadaryo Regional Court acquitted Tojiboev of defamation, insult, and resisting a state official, but sentenced him to three years in prison after finding him guilty of interfering in court proceedings and coercing a state official.
The court convicted Nurimbetov and Ahmedov on the same charges and sentenced Nurimbetov to three years of parole-like restricted freedom and Ahmedov to two and a half years of the same, according to news reports and an announcement by the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan.
Eshonkhonov said that Nurimbetov and Ahmedov’s “restricted freedom” sentence consists of a 10 p.m. curfew and ban on travelling outside of their home regions without the permission of local authorities.
In audio republished by Ozodlik from a now unavailable June 2 video, Tojiboev said that the case against him showed that “freedom of speech in Uzbekistan is dead,” and suggested that his prosecution could be linked to Effect.uz’s extensive coverage of the trial of blogger Otabek Sattoriy, who is serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence on extortion charges that Sattoriy’s lawyer told CPJ are in retaliation for his reporting.
Tojiboev, Nurimbetov, and Ahmedov have already filed appeals against their sentences, Eshonkhonov told CPJ in mid-November 2021, but an appeals hearing has yet to be scheduled.
As of mid-November, Tojiboev in detention in a facility in Farg’ona, Eshonkhonov told CPJ, adding that the journalist’s health is stable.
CPJ emailed Termez District Court and Judge Begimqulov for comment, but did not receive a reply.
CPJ also emailed the Office of the Prosecutor-General of Uzbekistan and Surkhondaryo regional authorities for comment on Tojiboev’s case, but did not receive any replies.