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Uzbekistan releases its “last detained journalists”

Bobomurod Abdulloev, Uzbek journalist. Photo by Radio Ozodlik

Once known as one of the world’s most despotic regimes, Uzbekistan continues to move closer to a free society since new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in September 2016.

On May 7, 2018, the former Soviet Central Asian republic freed two journalists, Bobomurod Abdulloev and Hayot Nasriddinov, who were detained in September and October 2017 for “anti-constitutional activities”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed this move by the Uzbek authorities and declared that for the first time in last two decades there are no journalists left behind bars in Uzbekistan. Other international organizations also expressed their approval of the move. The international community had been keeping a special eye on this case, as it was the first time since the arrival of Uzbekistan's new president that journalists had been detained in the country.

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, welcomed their release and urged that “all remaining charges should be dropped.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan had been ruled by the iron-handed Islam Karimov, until he died in September 2016. Karimov’s long-serving Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev replaced his late boss, launched some economic and political reforms at home, and catalyzed changes in regional integration. Among the political changes was the release of several political prisoners who had served decades in prison. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, five journalists, not including the two released this week, were also freed in the past one and a half years.

It was during this period of political reform that journalists Bobomurod Abdulloev and Hayot Nasriddinov were detained on the same charges Islam Karimov’s regime had used to imprison political opponents and journalists for years. The outcome of this case would show whether President Mirziyoyev was committed to continuing his reforms and an open-door policy or just temporarily playing the role of “good cop” to win people’s support for his internal political battles.

The detained journalists were charged with writing articles calling for the violent overthrow of the regime in Uzbekistan under a pseudonym. The journalists recognized that their articles had raised problems, but denied that this included calls to violence.

When security forces officers in charge with investigating the case became themselves embroiled in a power struggle between the powerful former head of Uzbekistan’s security forces, Rustam Inoyatov, and the new president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, many hoped that the journalists Abdulloev and Nasriddinov would be freed.

On May 7, the court acquitted Hayot Nasriddinov of all charges, but found Abdullaev guilty of “extremism”, sentencing the journalist to three years of community service. The judge released both directly from the courtroom.

Minutes after breathing in the air of freedom and hugging his family members, Abdullaev gave an interview to his local colleagues, saying:

The fact that I am free now, and the fact that the court hearing was open, are fruits of the liberal politics of the President Mirziyoyev.

Uzbekistan, like many other former Soviet republics, is a country where even small political moves are subject to the ruler’s approval.

As CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova commented:

Now that the country has freed its press from physical custody, authorities must build on this progress to ensure that the media are able to do their job independently and without fear of reprisal.

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