A criminal trial in Uzbekistan that garnered strong attention in media circles but that was largely unreported due to court-imposed restrictions has concluded with guilty verdicts for all defendants, resulting in stiff sentences for two of them.
The central figure in the trial, which concluded on September 26 after two months of closed-door hearings, was Khurshid Daliyev.
Prosecutors successfully argued that Daliyev, the founder and head of Human.uz, a news outlet, had engaged in defamation, extortion on a grand scale, tax evasion and money evasion.
Daliyev, who pleaded guilty to the charges, has been sentenced to seven years in prison, as was his accused co-conspirator Siyovush Hashimov, a one-time spokesperson at state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz. Prosecutors had asked for 15-year prison terms.
Some scant details have been divulged about the identity of the targets of the purported offenses. They are said to have included a former employment minister, an ex-head of the labor migration agency and a spokesperson for the governor of the Samarkand region. More than 200 people reportedly gave testimonies during the trial, which played out in Tashkent’s Shaykhontohur district court.
Two other people in the dock, Mavjuda Mirzayeva, the employment ministry’s ex-press chief, and Ahmadullo Ahmadjonov, Daliyev’s 19-year-old assistant, were handed five and three years of limited freedom, respectively. In one of many details rendered puzzling for the lack of context, Mirzayeva was, among other things, convicted on charges of "knowingly endangering or infecting [people] with HIV/AIDS.”
At first blush, the case could be read as another example of how the Uzbek authorities remain, despite their self-proclaimed reformist credentials, unwilling to allow press freedom to flourish. The inability of journalists to attend hearings and the paucity of specific details divulged by prosecutors even now that the trial is over certainly lend weight to that interpretation.
The more pertinent underlying story, however, may be quite a different one.
In the partial and highly controlled liberalization that has washed over Uzbekistan since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, entrepreneur soi-disant journalists with an often-weak grasp or interest in ethical standards have become legion.
Prosecutors sought to argue, albeit away from the eyes of the public, that Daliyev and his accomplices were using their media backgrounds to blackmail high-ranking officials. After Daliyev was detained in January, the State Security Service said in a statement his group was suspected of committing “crimes through Kompromat.uzb and other [Telegram] channels.”
Kompromat.uzb, which is still accessible to this day and has more than 75,000 subscribers, was mainly known for posting unconfirmed information about alleged mismanagement across various entities, mostly banks. The final post published on the channel dates to January.
The voluminous report into the case compiled by investigators charges that Daliyev and Hashimov created Kompromat.uzb in August 2021 to leverage their journalistic activities with “malicious intent and with a view to eventually engaging in extortion for financial gain." The two men are said by their accusers to have approached targets with threats of having compromising information published about them. Under this scheme, reputedly dubbed “Stop Tarif,” the victim was required to pay for bogus public relations services in return for the publications being withheld.
Mirzayeva, like that pair, has a background in journalism. In 2018, she became the object of media attention when she spoke publicly about censorship practices she had witnessed at state-owned TV news channel Uzbekistan 24, where she worked at the time.
The sentenced group was found by the court to have caused financial damages to a tune of 5.14 billion Uzbek sums (about $421,000) – funds that were then alleged to have been used for the purchase of real estate, vehicles and other assets.
In the absence of transparency, the believability of the state’s broader case or of the specific accusations levied at Daliyev and his colleagues are inevitably a matter for subjective judgement. Hardened skeptics wary of any prosecutorial narrative may maintain the affair has been concocted from thin air or grossly exaggerated. Meanwhile, those inclined to worry about the hidden scale of extortion practices among Uzbekistan’s many self-styled bloggers, or citizen journalists, may give the charges strong credence.
Daliyev’s own remarks, possibly delivered under some degree of duress, also tell their own story.
In February, when a journalist at Daryo.uz, a local news outlet, visited Daliyev in his pre-trial detention center, he reportedly said: “We made a mistake. We misunderstood freedom of speech a little.”