A conference on media freedoms that took place this week in Uzbekistan should rightly be considered a breakthrough in relations between Tashkent and the international journalistic community.
The two-day event, organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, closed on October 19. It brought together colleagues from the region to discuss pressing technical and political aspects of the industry.
But the proceedings — the so-called “festival of press freedoms” — were overshadowed by the late September arrest of Tashkent journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev.
Abdullayev had lived a quiet life for the best part of a decade. And then suddenly, for the worst possible reason, his name became known again after he was arrested and accused of being the writer of articles attributed to the pseudonymous online political commentator Usman Khaknazarov. Since his detention, he has been stuck in a latter-day zindan (a Persian word for dungeon), denied access to relatives or a lawyer. Investigators suspect him of engaging in “anti-constitutional activity” and that he was plotting to overthrow the government.
But who is Bobomurod Abdullayev?
Abdullayev was born in 1973. He was a star student in secondary school, and in 1995, Abdullayev — or simply “Bob” to his friends — graduated with full honors from the Russian Language Department of Tashkent State University. He then went on to become a language specialist and translator. Later, he enrolled for another bachelor’s degree from Tashkent State University of Economics, graduating in 2004.
Since 1997, Abdullayev has variously worked as an editor of research material at the Central Bank, as an interpreter for the Uzbekistan-Turkey Chamber of Commerce, and also as a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Uzbek service.
Until the mid-2000s, when it was still possible to make an honest living as a journalist, he did stints as a correspondent for the Tashkent-based Turkiston-Press news agency and as a reporter for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. His colleagues at the time spoke of him as an even-headed, composed and highly educated person in full command of his journalistic skills.
After the bloodshed in Andijan in 2005, the majority of journalists who had worked with foreign outlets were forced to either leave the country, or maintain a low profile. Abdullayev opted for the second option — what is sometimes alluded to as “internal migration.”
“I’m under close surveillance,” he wrote to me in 2008. “Anybody who stayed behind is being followed, controlled, every step they take could mean being shot on the spot. I can only write about football, which is what I love and understand.”
And so Abdullayev turned to writing about football for local outlets – never referring to politics. The website that I founded and continue to run to this day, Fergana News, published several pieces by him about sports over the years, like this one, about the prospect of world-famous Cameroonian footballer Samuel Eto’o going to play for an Uzbek club.
Football was a lifeline for Abdullayev, giving him an outlet to exercise his skills for research and analysis. To make some extra money, he sometimes worked as a taxi driver in Tashkent.
Fergana News got back in touch with Abdullayev in early 2017. Abdullayev was encouraged by the apparent thaw ushered in by the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and he was determined to take part in full. After long years of silence, he again wanted to talk and write, and even sing. Abdullayev is known by many as a performer of simple, but innocent, touching and sincere songs on YouTube.
Abdullayev offered us several topics for coverage, and I happily accepted his submissions. Contrary to widespread belief, Fergana News does not seek out gruesome stories simply for the purpose of heaping abuse on Uzbekistan. We simply fulfill our journalistic duties by talking about problems in the government and society. And Abdullayev acquitted the job like no other.
His professionalism, clarity of vision, and ability to get to the essence of things and describe them with elegance was something to behold. Unfortunately, even with the arrival of the “Mirziyoyev thaw,” it still seems possible for even quite harmless articles to create trouble.
From personal experience, I can state that Abdullayev always wrote thoughtful, critical but measured articles. It is for that reason that I cannot believe that he is, as the security services are insisting, the person behind the collective Usman Khaknazarov penname. The style and expression in the writing is just not the same. Usman Khaknazarov’s tone is hysterical and jarring.
Investigations are underway, but how much credibility can we give them? Are there any judges in Uzbekistan that we can trust unconditionally? And is it possible to believe the findings of an investigation that began with a man literally being kidnapped and kept incommunicado for several days before his arrest was formally confirmed, and who is still so isolated that neither his lawyer nor his mother can visit him?
We have seen countless times how innocent people admit to all kinds of crimes after being subjected to torture and having their relatives be intimidated. The only thing the Uzbek justice system has really learned to do well over the past quarter century is to effectively wring testimonies from the innocent, and imprison them.
In any event, there is barely anything in Usman Khaknazarov’s output that is worthy of a criminal trial. The writings under that name are little more than bile, fantasies and claims of utterly unverifiable insider information. The writer reveals no state secrets and makes no calls to overthrow the government.
Abdullayev’s name should have rung loud at the OSCE Central Asia Media Conference. And government representatives at the conference should have been compelled to answer many real questions.
Are the promises about political liberalization and guarantees of legality that we hear from the highest offices of the land worth anything? Are the words of the new president about the need to respect human rights truly meaningful? How long will Uzbekistan punish people for speaking freely and expressing their views? How long will the arbitrary, inhumane and irresponsible actions of the security services continue to go on unchecked?
The OSCE, and the group’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, in particular, must undertake every measure to seek the immediate release of Abdullayev. We too are making that demand. And we are waiting.
This analysis is adapted from a version that first appeared on Fergana News. Daniil Kislov is the chief editor of Moscow-based Fergana News, which focuses of current affairs in Central Asia.