A journalist detained in Uzbekistan last week has reportedly been charged with conspiring to topple the government, sowing fears that the ongoing reform agenda may be faltering.
Bobomurod Abdullayev, 44, was taken into custody by agents with the National Security Services, or SNB, late last month under mysterious circumstances. It was several days after he went missing that friends and relatives discovered that Abdullayev had been detained. Even after it emerged that he was being held by the SNB, his lawyer was not permitted to speak to him.
In a curious twist this week, it emerged that the SNB is accusing Abdullayev of being the mind behind the pseudonymous online political commentator and gossip-merchant Usman Khaknazarov. That the authorities pinned Usman Khaknazarov on a single person comes as something of a surprise since it has long been assumed by Uzbekistan-watchers that the pen-name was a composite effort by multiple government critics. Columns by this writer have been published sporadically and were constituted in large part of unsubstantiated — not to say patently fabricated — tittle-tattle about supposed goings-on in the halls of power in Tashkent.
A group of police officers and SNB agents searched Abdullayev’s home on September 29 and seized a computer hard drive along with several CDs and DVDs. They also confiscated a book called “The Life of the Prophet Muhammed.”
Paris-based rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva told RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, that she was in touch with Abdullayev in the days before his detention, which occurred on September 26, and that he told her that he was being followed.
Abdullayev is a well-known figure in Uzbekistan’s journalistic circles. He previously worked for the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, or IWPR, and the journalism training network, Internews. Most recently, he has focused on sporting journalism and drawn attention for his vocal criticism of the football scene.
The SNB maintains that Abdullayev produced his scurrilous Usman Khaknazarov pieces at the behest of Istanbul-based opposition figure Muhammad Solih, a poet and leader of the Erk political party, who fled the country after unsuccessfully standing against the late President Islam Karimov in the 1991 presidential election. Remarkably, this accusation was lent credibility by Solih himself on October 3, when he gave a press conference in Istanbul claiming that Abdullayev was indeed Usman Khaknazarov.
Why Solih would have exposed his own colleague and ally, thereby putting him at considerable risk, is not immediately evident. In fact, it has long been assumed that Solih is actually one of the individuals behind the pseudonymous writer, whose writings are now being described by the SNB as an incitement to public unrest.
Another exiled reporter, Alisher Taksanov, has said that he believes Abdullayev’s arrest marks an attempt by the SNB to put down a marker in the face of reforms being implemented by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Speaking to CA-News, Taksanov argued that elements in the SNB are embittered over the adoption of policies that have led to their loss of control over important economic assets.
Abdullayev has been implicitly supporting Mirziyoyev’s transparency agenda by writing critical articles about abuses and corruption among officials at all levels, Taksanov said.
“If Shavkat Mironovich really has the ambition to create a state that is closer to the people, to create the space needed for the private sector to grow and the economy to liberalize, then journalists like Bobomurod Abdullayev will be indispensable,” CA-News cited Taksanov as saying.
While the scenario is possibly somewhere near accurate, this position seems to overstate the extent of evidence that the government is pursuing a genuine policy of openness. The arbitrary detention of reporters doing their daily work is still an inescapable feature of life. Foreign reporters have trickled in for short-term visits, but those seeking to pursue longer-term journalism in the country continue to kept at arm’s length.
In any event, if the Abdullayev case is to be seen as a testbed case of the Uzbek government’s commitment to a new way of doing things, it is not looking promising.