Journalist Otabek Sattoriy is serving a prison sentence of six and a half years in Uzbekistan after being convicted of extortion and other crimes in May 2021. Uzbek police detained Sattoriy, who covers alleged corruption and mismanagement by local authorities on his blog, in January 2021.
Sattoriy regularly published reports critical of local authorities in the southern city of Termez and the wider Surkhondaryo region on his Telegram and YouTube accounts, both named Xalq Fikri (The People’s Opinion), and on his personal Facebook page, according to news reports and CPJ’s review of those pages. He had about 4,400 friends on Facebook, and his YouTube videos had received a total of about 1.1 million views. CPJ was unable to view his Telegram channel, which has been taken down.
On January 30, 2021, a group of plainclothes police officers arrested Sattoriy near his home, where his family and parents also live, as captured by security footage of the arrest that was posted online by the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, known locally as Radio Ozodlik. About 20 to 30 people who identified themselves as investigators from the local police department searched the house, confiscating several memory cards, two computers, and some papers from his office, the journalist’s father, Abdumannon Sattoriy, told CPJ.
The following day, the Interior Ministry’s Investigations Department released a statement saying that the search followed a complaint from a local market owner, who alleged that Sattoriy had threatened to publish “negative” reporting about the market unless the owner replaced a phone that Sattoriy claimed had been damaged while filming there.
Sattoriy denied the charges, saying that the market owner’s employees had taken and damaged his phone when they tried to stop him from recording the facility’s prices, and that the owner had agreed to replace the phone after authorities intervened on Sattoriy’s behalf, according to case documents reviewed by CPJ. Sattoriy and his lawyers argued that authorities had deliberately set the blogger up in retaliation for his journalism, according to the journalist’s father and those documents.
On February 1, 2021, a Termez criminal court ordered Sattoriy to be held in pretrial detention on a charge of extortion “by prior conspiracy by a group of persons,” subject to a prison term of five to 10 years, according to reports and a statement by the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan. Authorities did not identify Sattoriy’s alleged co-conspirators or charge his friend who was with him at the market, according to news reports.
On February 11, a court convicted Sattoriy on additional administrative charges of defamation, insult, and distributing false news, and fined him 9.8 million soms (US$900), according to reports and a statement by the prosecutor general’s office, which said the convictions were related to materials published by the blogger on social media in January 2021 accusing employees at a local coal depot and a zoo of embezzlement and other crimes.
On February 24, authorities filed five additional counts of extortion, two counts of criminal defamation, and one count of criminal insult against Sattoriy, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry’s Investigations Department and news reports. One of those extortion charges, classified as “on an especially large scale,” alleged that Sattoriy had extorted Termez Mayor Isroil Xudoyberdiyev and a construction company manager in June 2020 to obtain upgrades on apartments given to his family after their homes were demolished.
Investigators also accused Sattoriy of accepting money to publish videos in July and October 2020 containing defamatory corruption allegations against an employee at a state-run oncology clinic and an employee at a state notary office, and with criminally insulting the notary office employee. Investigators also charged Sattoriy with extorting money from three drivers who distributed gas for the state-owned gas distribution company Hududgazta’minot, as well as from the company’s deputy director, according to the court verdict, which alleged that the journalist had published videos on his social media accounts when they were unable to pay.
Sattoriy repeatedly covered alleged corrupt and unjust practices at Hududgazta’minot amid public anger over heating shortages in December 2020 and January 2021 and also criticized local authorities, particularly Surkhondaryo Regional Governor To’ra Bobolov, for alleged mismanagement.
Sattoriy’s lawyer Umidbek Davlatov and the blogger’s father both told CPJ in phone interviews that they were certain the charges were fabricated and in retaliation for Sattoriy’s reporting.
On May 10, 2021, the Muzrabot District Court in the Surkhondaryo region convicted Sattoriy of three counts of extortion and two counts of defamation, sentencing him to six years and six months in prison, according to reports.
Judge To’lqin Abdiraimov acquitted Sattoriy on the insult charge and on three charges of extorting the gas company workers, but convicted him on the remaining charges, including the most serious charge of extortion relating to the apartments, those reports stated.
The judge also ordered that the family return apartments related to the construction company case and that compensation be paid to the Sattoriy family for their demolished houses instead. Abdumannon Sattoriy told CPJ that the compensation that was awarded significantly undervalued the properties and was insufficient to buy new homes.
On July 15, 2021, the Samarqand Regional Criminal Court panel upheld Sattoriy’s prison sentence but overturned the decision to confiscate the two apartments, according to reports, a statement by the Supreme Court, and Davlatov.
Following that appeal hearing, Sattoriy was transferred from pretrial detention to Penal Colony No. 4 in the city of Navoiy, his father told CPJ.
In a November 2022 opinion, published in March 2023, the U.N. Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on Uzbekistan to release Sattoriy, declaring his detention arbitrary and saying its basis “was in fact his exercise of freedom of expression.”
In November 2023, Sattoriy was transferred to a minimum security prison in the city of Qarshi, according to news reports and Sattoriy’s sister, Farangiz Alimova, who spoke to CPJ by messaging app. Sattoriy remains in good health, she said, and has new rights at the Qarshi facility, including increased visitation rights, the possibility to work outside of prison, and permission to possess a mobile phone.
In December 2023, CPJ emailed the Uzbek Interior Ministry for comment but did not receive any reply.