I’ve written in these pages many times about human rights violations in Uzbekistan. Free expression is severely restricted, thousands of people are imprisoned on politically motivated charges, human rights defenders and independent journalists are frequently subjected to harassment and intimidation, including beatings and smear campaigns, and torture is endemic.
Uzbekistan’s authoritarian ruler Islam Karimov died in September 2016 after ruling for almost twenty-seven years. But the promotion of former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the office of president has made little difference to Uzbekistan’s appalling human rights record. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report that the authorities continue to crack down on civil society activists, opponents of the government and journalists. Muslims and Christians who practise their religion outside strict state controls are persecuted; adults and children continue to be forced to harvest cotton under harsh conditions; homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people are at risk of abuse and discrimination. Even exiles live in fear of the long arm of the state.
On 20 September, dissident journalist Narzullo Akhunjonov was arrested and detained at Kiev airport in response to an Interpol Red Notice requested by Uzbekistan. Akhunjonov is known for his critical reporting on a range of issues, from politics and jihadism to Uzbek television, and has contributed to BBC Uzbek, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service. His poetry has been published in various collections. He began to suffer persecution in 1998, when he questioned Karimov about the detention of a fellow journalist on spurious fraud charges, after which he was banned from presidential press conferences. In 1999, Akhunjonov was briefly detained and subsequently accused of bribery.
Akhunjonov has been living in exile with his family in Turkey since November 2013. After being followed by unknown persons and receiving threatening anonymous calls, he fled to Ukraine along with his wife and their five children to request political asylum. Akhunjonov now risks extradition to Uzbekistan on charges of fraud dating from 2009. This forms part of a pattern of fraud charges being used against dissidents; PEN believes that the case against Akhunjonov is politically motivated. In April 2017, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe noted that ‘Interpol and its Red Notice system have been abused by some member states … in order to repress freedom of expression or to persecute members of the political opposition beyond their borders’ and called on all member states of the Council of Europe to ‘refrain from carrying out arrests … when they have serious concerns that the notice in question could be abusive’.
Writers and journalists are particularly vulnerable to politically motivated arrest. On 27 September, Nurullo Muhummad Raufkhon, an Uzbek author, was detained at Tashkent airport after arriving from Turkey. He was charged with extremism for publishing passages critical of Karimov in his 2016 book Bu Kunlar (‘These Days’), which focuses on governmental failings in Uzbekistan since it gained independence. The book is banned in Uzbekistan. Raufkhon was released on 1 October but still faces charges.
The latest victim of state repression is Bobomurod Abdullaev, an independent journalist and well-known sports reporter and football commentator. He also writes political analysis under a pseudonym and has contributed to international media organisations and participated as an independent expert in discussions on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service. He set up the media rights organisation Ozod Ovoz (‘Free Voice’) and has worked as a correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting and for Internews International.
Abdullaev disappeared on the afternoon of 27 September while running an errand. His family did not know what had happened to him until two days later, when they learned that he had been arrested by the National Security Service. That day, the security service searched Abdullaev’s home for over five hours, confiscating media equipment and books. On 1 October, the Yunusabadskiy District Criminal Court in Tashkent charged Abdullaev with preparing and disseminating online materials in an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order of the state under Article 159 of the Criminal Code. The National Security Service alleges that he is working with Muhammad Salih, an opposition leader who has lived in exile since 1993. Abdullaev faces up to twenty years’ imprisonment if convicted.
The Uzbek courts often rely on ‘confessions’ obtained through torture to secure convictions, and a climate of impunity prevails. At the time of writing, Abdullaev is being held at the notorious pretrial detention centre of the National Security Service, which has a long track record of torture. Abdullaev has been denied access to legal counsel and has only been allowed to see his wife briefly. PEN believes that Abdullaev is being detained solely on account of his journalistic work and that he is at severe risk of torture.
Readers might like to send appeals urging the Uzbek authorities immediately and unconditionally to release journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev and to drop the criminal charges against him and Nurullo Raufkhon; seeking assurances that Abdullaev will not be subject to torture and ill-treatment pending release; calling on the government to respect the right to freedom of expression and to allow journalists and writers to work without fear of reprisal and harassment; and urging it to refrain from using Interpol’s Red Notice system to persecute dissidents, such as Narzullo Akhunjonov, living in exile.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Prosecutor General’s Office of Uzbekistan
Ulitsa Gulyamova 66, Tashkent 700047, Uzbekistan
Fax: +998 71 133 3017 Email: email@example.com
His Excellency Alisher Shaykhov
Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan
41 Holland Park, London W11 3RP
Fax: +44 20 7229 7029 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org