News of Yoqubov's arrest in mid-April came against the backdrop of an event that had already unnerved journalists in Uzbekistan. After an article signed by a certain Safar Abdullaev appeared on the Internet with sensational details of a coming crackdown against independent journalists in Uzbekistan, a number of the individuals named by Abdullaev sent an open letter to the Interior Ministry requesting confirmation or denial of the report. Deputy Interior Minister Alisher Sharafuddinov held an unusual public meeting with the journalists in question on 15 April, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. While Sharafuddinov insisted that no crackdown was in the offing, he confirmed the arrest of a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat."
The Uzbek government has yet to make clear the substance of its charges against Sobirjon Yoqubov.
According to a transcript of the meeting published by tribune.uz, Sharafuddinov said in response to a question from an RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent, "[Sobirjon Yoqubov] was arrested on 11 April, and on 14 April he was charged under Article 159." Article 159 of Uzbekistan's criminal code involves attempts to "overthrow the constitutional order." It is a staple of reports on the government's controversial fight against religious extremism, which critics have described as a campaign of repression that inflames, rather than contains, radicalism. The most common suspects in cases involving article 159 are alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses the establishment of an Islamic caliphate throughout Central Asia even as it officially eschews violence.International Reaction
International watchdog organizations reacted quickly to Yoqubov's arrest. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued press releases expressing concern for the journalist's safety. Noting that the charges against Yoqubov could carry a 20-year prison sentence, the two organizations quoted sources in Uzbekistan as saying that the authorities might be using an accusation of religious extremism to punish the journalist for addressing a hot-button political issue.
In an 18 April press release, the Committee to Protect Journalists quoted a March article Yoqubov wrote about the murder of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Yoqubov argued that Gongadze's slaying "became a driving force [for Ukrainians] to realize the necessity of democratic reforms and freedom."
Pascale Bonnamour, head of the Europe desk for Reports Without Borders, told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) on 20 April that Yakubov's arrest should be viewed in the context of recent events in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. "The fact that Yakubov is in prison serves as a warning to other journalists to monitor what they say," she said.
The U.S. State Department also expressed concern. "Our embassy is in contact with the Uzbek authorities and has urged observance of due process and fair and humane treatment for Mr. Yakubov," spokesman Adam Ereli said at a 19 April briefing published on the State Department website (http://www.state.gov). As noted in our 2004 Human Rights Report, in the past journalists have been harassed by the Uzbek government in an apparent effort to limit publication of critical stories. We will be following this case closely."Domestic Outcry
Uzbek journalists spoke out as well. In an appeal on the uznews.net website (http://www.uznews.net), a number of Uzbek journalists condemned the silence of their colleagues and urged them to show support for Yoqubov through an Internet petition (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/291000507). "In Uzbekistan, where the rights and freedoms of journalists are crudely violated, each of us can become a victim of injustice," the appeal's authors noted. The signatories included two of Yoqubov's colleagues from the newspaper "Hurriyat," Bahriddin Mingboev and Zebo Abduqodirova.
"Colleagues and relatives who knew Sobirjon, as well as ordinary Uzbek citizens who read his publications, are convinced that the charge against him is unfounded and that a serious mistake has been made," the appeal stated. Two of them, both signatories to the appeal, shared their views. Yoqutkhon Mamatova, a lecturer on the journalism faculty at Tashkent University, said: "Sobirjon was one of our most talented students. And he understood state policy. Proof of this is that he had a number of publications in the local press on international terrorism. His arrest may have been the result of someone's mistake." Asilkhon Iskandarov, a classmate of Yoqubov and a student on the journalist faculty at Tashkent University, said: "He's completely innocent. Sobirjon and I have been friends since school, and I know him very well."
The Uzbek government has yet to make clear the substance of its charges against Sobirjon Yoqubov. But as the initial reaction to the journalist's arrest shows, it has already ensured that the case will receive careful scrutiny, both abroad and at a home.