In January 2021, Uzbek police arrested Otabek Sattoriy, who covers alleged corruption and mismanagement by local authorities on his blog. Authorities charged him with extortion and other crimes, and in May 2021 sentenced him to 6.5 years in prison.
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. CPJ was unable to view his Telegram channel, which has been taken down; he has about 4,600 friends on Facebook, and his YouTube videos have received a total of about 1 million views.
On January 30, 2021, a group of plainclothes police officers arrested Sattoriy near the house that Sattoriy shares with his family and parents, as seen in security footage of the arrest. About 20 to 30 people who identified themselves as investigators from the local police department then searched the house, confiscating several of memory cards, two computers, and some papers from his office, Sattoriy’s father, Abdumannon Sattoriy, told CPJ.
The following day, the Interior Ministry’s Investigations Department released a statement saying that the operation and search followed a complaint from a local market owner alleging that Sattoriy had threatened to publish “negative” reporting about the market unless the owner replaced a phone that Sattoriy claimed had been damaged during 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 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 Abdumannon Sattoriy and those documents.
On February 1, 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 ten years, according to reports and a statement by the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan.
Investigators did not identify Sattoriy’s alleged co-conspirator, and did not interview or charge his friend who was with him at the market, despite searching the friend’s house, according to news reports. Sattoriy’s lawyer argued that this showed that investigators sought any means to fabricate a case against Sattoriy to keep him in jail.
On February 11, a closed court convicted Sattoriy on additional administrative charges of defamation, insult, and distributing false news, and fined him 9.8 million soms (US$918), according to reports and a statement by the prosecutor general’s office, which said that the convictions 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, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry’s Investigations Department and news reports.
The most serious extortion offense, from June 2020, alleged that Sattoriy had extorted Termez Mayor Isroil Xudoyberdiev and a construction company manager into providing upgrades on two apartments that the Termez city council had promised Sattoriy’s family in compensation for homes demolished by the council; the blogger allegedly threatened to publish negative material about the company and the mayor if they did not comply, according to a copy of the court verdict reviewed by CPJ.
That charge was classified as extortion “on an especially large scale,” subject to 10 to 15 years in prison; Xudoyberdiev filed the original complaint and was originally listed as a claimant, but later became a witness, according to news reports, a copy of Sattoriy’s later appeal reviewed by CPJ, and the Interior Ministry statement.
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, charges subject to up to three years of “restricted freedom”; and of criminally insulting the notary office employee, a charge subject to up to one year of restricted freedom, according to the criminal code.
Investigators further charged Sattoriy with extorting money from three drivers distributing gas for the state-owned gas distribution company Hududgazta’minot, as well as from the company’s deputy director, in return for not publishing videos allegedly showing the drivers overcharging for the gas, according to the court verdict, which alleged that the journalist published the 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 repeatedly 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 in retaliation for Sattoriy’s reporting. Abdumannon Sattoriy said that the family had received the apartment upgrades after the family’s repeated appeals to authorities.
Sattoriy’s trial began on March 11 at the Muzrabot District Court in the Surkhondaryo region, and during a closing hearing on May 4, Sattoriy’s lawyers argued that the prosecution had failed to provide any material evidence of extortion, according to a video recording of the hearing. The defense argued that the speed with which investigators assembled the case against Sattoriy in early February was evidence that local authorities had fabricated the case against the blogger.
At that hearing, prosecutors demanded an 11-year prison sentence, according to the same recording. On May 10, the Muzrabot court delivered convicted Sattoriy 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.
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, according to reports. The judge also ordered that the apartments be returned to the construction company and compensation be paid to the Sattoriy family for their demolished houses instead.
Abdumannon Sattoriy told CPJ that the compensation awarded significantly undervalued the properties and was insufficient to buy new homes.
Davlatov told CPJ that the sentence was “totally unjust,” and vowed to appeal. On July 15, the Samarqand Regional Criminal Court panel upheld Sattoriy’s prison sentence, but overturned the decision to confiscate the two apartments, according to news reports, a statement by the Supreme Court, and Davlatov.
Davlatov described the decision to return the properties without altering Sattoriy’s sentence as a procedural violation and said that he planned to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court.
Following the appeals hearing, Sattoriy was transferred from pretrial detention to Penal Colony No. 4 in the city of Navoiy, where he remains as of early October 2021, his father told CPJ. Abdumannon Sattoriy said that his son remained in good health and the family was permitted to visit him once every two months.
As of early October 2021, Sattoriy has yet to file a cassation appeal at Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court, his father said.
In October 2021 CPJ emailed the Uzbek Interior Ministry, Hududgazta’minot, and the Surkhondaryo regional administration for comment, and called and messaged Termez city authorities on Facebook, but did not receive any replies.