Uzbekistan: Journalist goes free at end of trial
The court's decision to allow Bobomurod Abdullayev to walk free marks a precedent.
A prominent journalist in Uzbekistan has been found guilty of public calls to overthrow the government but was immediately released from custody in an unparalleled gesture of clemency from the nation’s courts.
Abdurahman Tashanov, head of a Tashkent-based rights group, told Eurasianet that a court hearing the case of Bobomurod Abdullayev, 44, sentenced him to a suspended three-year jail term at a corrective labor facility. Accounting for time served, the court ordered the reporter to be freed.
Charges against three others on the defendants’ bench — journalist Khayot Nasreddinov and businessmen Shavkat Ollyorov and Ravshan Salayev — were dropped altogether, another potentially portentous precedent.
The Abdullayev case has been described as a bellwether for the government’s commitment to reform and greater openness under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The president is set to embark on a visit to the United States later this month, on May 16-17, and freeing Abdullayev could serve to win the Uzbek government easy plaudits.
The journalist’s arrest at the hands of the National Security Services, or SNB, in late September had been interpreted at the time as an indicator that independent journalism would not be permitted to flourish, despite some encouraging signals.
The main charge that was leveled at Abdullayev was that he and accomplices were behind a pseudonymous online political gossip writer called Usman Khaknazarov. The output of this anonymous figure, which is widely assumed to be a composite of multiple contributors, had typically consisted of unsourced tittle-tattle about goings-on in the administration of the late President Islam Karimov. The SNB — which has been rebranded since into the State Security Service, or SGB — has argued that the writings were tantamount to a campaign to overthrow the government. Abdullayev admitted to being behind some of the Khaknazarov articles, although he rejected the suggestion this could be described as seditious intent.
If this case was about press freedom at the most surface level, there was an intra-elite dimension to it too. Arresting Abdullayev was one of the SNB’s last high-profile actions before the body was definitively defanged earlier this year. As well as long acting as an often-merciless and arbitrary tool for implementing the government’s authoritarian policies, the security services are said to have represented considerable financial clout behind the scenes. There was every indication that they were growing increasingly uncomfortable with Mirziyoyev’s reformism agenda, and their battle to counter that momentum has evidently failed.
Tashanov, the rights defender, said that he was especially heartened by the court’s order to conduct a further internal investigation into the security service officers who pursued the case against Abdullayev. The journalist had complained while in custody that he was being denied access to his lawyer and that he had been beaten into signing a confession.
“They might even file a case against the SGB officers. Maybe then citizens in this country can start to believe the president’s promises about Uzbekistan finally getting fair trials,” he said.