Prague, 15 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The meeting between the journalists and the deputy interior minister was an unprecedented event in Uzbekistan.
The subject of the talks were a series of Internet articles written under the name of Safar Abdullaev.
The articles referred to the existence of a confidential document drafted by the Interior Ministry and detailing a plan for new state repressions for the years 2005-07.
Deputy Interior Minister Alisher Sharafutdinov told the journalists the allegations were untrue. “Safar Abdullaev’s articles about some orders from the country’s government or other legal documents issued by the Interior Ministry indicating some numbers and dates are absolutely absurd," he said. "I state with full responsibility that these kinds of orders or legal documents never existed in the Interior Ministry. They don’t and can’t exist, especially [documents] with some [black]list."
"I think it’s very logical that authorities want to repress us, because public discontent is huge and law-enforcement agencies and the presidential administration are aware of this." - IWPR's Bukharbaeva
The plan, as published by Abdullaev, includes the names of roughly a hundred well-known rights activists, independent journalists, and opposition politicians. It also recommends different methods of repression. Those include criminal investigations, imprisonment, confinement in mental institutions, and banning Uzbeks currently abroad from re-entering the country. It also specifies that thousands of people in various regions are to be subjected to similar repressions.
Such articles might be met with skepticism in other parts of the world. But in Uzbekistan -- where people may be jailed simply for religious worship or conducting journalistic interviews, let alone criticizing authorities or organizing protests -- the public is talking Abdullaev's articles seriously.
Galima Bukharbaeva is the director of the Uzbek branch of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), and one of the people to initiate the letter to the interior minister. She said there is good reason to believe Abdullaev's articles are based in fact.
“I believe there are many reasons why journalists should be taking this information seriously and moving to protect themselves. We decided to write a letter to Almatov because the situation we [independent journalists] are in is getting worse. Besides, I think it’s very logical that authorities want to repress us, because public discontent is huge and law-enforcement agencies and the presidential administration are aware of this. They are also aware of how prominent journalists can influence the discontent and allow it to be demonstrated," Bukharbaeva said.
Other people who joined Bukharbaeva in signing the letter included several other IWPR correspondents, as well as the head of the independent Organization for Protection of Journalists' Rights and Liberties, Yusuf Rasulov; BBC correspondent Matluba Azamatova, and Radio Iran correspondent Tulkin Karaev. An independent sociologist based in Tashkent, Bahodir Musaev, also signed the letter. Their names all appear on the alleged ministry blacklist, as do those of several correspondents from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, among others.
The letter, which was also sent to a number of Western embassies and international organizations, said if the articles' allegations were untrue, Interior Minister Almatov should deny them publicly. His silence, they said, would be a sign that Abdullaev's claims are true, and that the lives of the blacklisted people were in danger.
Almatov has been Uzbekistan's interior minister since 1991 and is considered one of the country's most powerful political figures. Bukharbaeva said even sending his deputy and other ministry deputies, rather than appearing himself, can be considered a positive step.
“My impression is positive. I am glad the MVD [Interior Ministry] took this step. As the MVD officers said themselves, it was their first-ever meeting with independent journalists since Uzbekistan acquired independence," Bukharbaeva said.
Still, Bukharbaeva said, the meeting shed no real light on the situation. The officials denied all the articles' claims and repeated assurances that Uzbekistan is making progress in democratic reforms.
But journalists who met with the deputy interior minister say the meeting was a success in that it brought the issue out into the open. Rasulov of the Organization for Protection of Journalists' Rights and Liberties, one of the authors of the letter to Almatov, said: “Our goal was to call public attention to this problem. As you know, a number of journalists have been imprisoned in Uzbekistan. Many -- like Jahongir Mamatov or Ruslan Sharipov -- have had to flee the country. The fact that so many journalists have ended up behind bars is a sign that others are in danger as well."
Despite the Interior Ministry assurances, those people whose names appear on the alleged blacklist remain concerned about their safety. It is still unclear if the information published in the articles was true, or even what the actual identity of the author is.
(RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondents Khusnutdin Kutbiddinov and Sadriddin Ashurov contributed to this report from Tashkent.)