I first wrote about Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov in these pages in June 2004. Five years earlier he had been handed a fifteen-year prison sentence for publishing and distributing a newspaper containing ‘slanderous criticism’ of President Islam Karimov, participating in a banned political protest and ‘attempting to overthrow the regime’.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), PEN and other human rights organisations believe Bekjanov is being detained because of his association with his brother, the opposition leader Muhammad Salih, now living in exile, and Bekjanov’s editorship of Erk (Freedom), the opposition party’s newspaper.
On 24 January 2012, just days before Bekjanov was due to be released, a district court in Kagan in the Bukhara region sentenced him to an additional five years after accusing him of breaking unspecified prison rules. Bekjanov has denied the charges and plans to appeal. Human Rights Watch point out that extending sentences for alleged violations of prison regulations is becoming increasingly common. These extensions occur without due process and can add years to a prisoner’s sentence.
Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, declared independence in September 1991. Three months later the former First Secretary of the Communist Party, Islam Karimov, was confirmed as President with 86 per cent of the vote. He has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist ever since, using the threat of Islamic militancy to justify his authoritarian leadership.
Karimov has suppressed democratic development and brutally clamped down on dissent and genuine opposition parties. The few Western observers who monitored parliamentary elections in 2004 condemned them as having failed to meet international standards (and pointed out that all the candidates supported the president anyway). Karimov gained a further term in December 2007 in elections that many dismissed as a sham.
Human Rights Watch’s 2012 report criticises the EU for its failure to make public expressions of concern about Uzbekistan’s deteriorating human rights record. The Andijan massacre in 2005, where Uzbek troops opened fire on protesters, had prompted the EU to enact sanctions. These were dropped in 2009; and in 2011 the US deepened its policy of re-engagement with Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek government has hounded the Bekjanov family and the Erk party ever since Salih stood against Karimov in the 1991 presidential election. After pressure from the government, Salih was forced to leave the country in 1994 and was later granted asylum in Norway.
In the early 1990s Bekjanov worked alongside Salih publishing Erk. When it was banned by the authorities, Bekjanov fled to Ukraine with his colleague, reporter Yusuf Ruzimuradov, and for a time they continued to produce the newspaper in exile. In March 1999, however, after a series of explosions in Tashkent, Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov were arrested and extradited to Uzbekistan. By the time of the Tashkent bombings they were no longer involved in the opposition. The two journalists were sentenced to fifteen years in prison on trumped-up charges, Salih was given the same sentence in absentia, and two other brothers, who have since been released, were also given prison terms. There was no evidence to connect any of them to the bombings and some commentators have even suggested that the explosions were the work of government agents provocateurs.
Both Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov claimed that they were tortured and subjected to beatings and electric shocks during their pre-trial detention. After being held in appalling conditions in one of the worst prisons in Uzbekistan, Bekjanov contracted tuberculosis. TB is endemic in Uzbek prisons and, in an attempt to stop it spreading further, the authorities herded all infected detainees into Kagan prison.
In June 2003 representatives from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting were permitted to visit Bekjanov in a prison hospital in Tashkent and he gave his first interview since his detention. He told them that as a result of torture in prison he is deaf in his right ear and that his leg had been broken.
In December that year, Zayniddin Asqarov, a political leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the leading witness in the prosecution of Bekjanov, told a press conference that he had given evidence only after being tortured. He had been told that, if he testified against Salih and his brothers, others would be spared arrest and an Islamic religious leader would be released. Despite Asqarov’s retraction, and the international appeals that followed this extraordinary turnaround, the authorities merely reduced Bekjanov’s sentence by two years.
Bekjanov was visited by his wife in 2006 and she told the independent news website Uznews that her husband had lost most of his teeth due to repeated beatings in custody. According to CPJ, Bekjanov and Ruzimuradov have been jailed longer than any other reporters worldwide.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting the additional sentence against Muhammad Bekjanov, who has already spent thirteen years in prison on politically motivated charges, and calling for his immediate and unconditional release, to:
Mr Yuldashev Nigmatilla Tulkinovich, Minister of Justice
HE Akbarov Otabek Khamidullayevich
Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan
41 Holland Park, London W11 3RP
Fax: 020 7229 7029
Update: On 6 November 2011, dissident journalist Djamshid Karimov (LR, February 2007) was released following five years’ detention in a psychiatric facility. PEN is deeply concerned that Karimov has suffered serious damage to his health caused by the forced administration of psychotropic drugs.