A court in the western Uzbek city of Nukus has found former RFE/RL correspondent Salijon Abdurahmonov guilty of possession of marijuana and opium, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
The 58-year-old journalist, who was arrested in June, denies the charges. His lawyers say the authorities fabricated the accusation, and accuse the police of planting the drugs in Abdurahmonov's car. The lawyers say they will lodge an appeal.
Human and media rights groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have condemned the case as yet another attempt to silence critics of the Uzbek government.
HRW said in a statement that "Abdurahmonov's case is the latest in a long line of politically motivated prosecutions waged by Uzbek authorities against independent journalists and human rights activists."
Abdurahmonov has worked for RFE/RL, Voice of America, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting as well as the UzNews, an independent online news agency. HRW describes Abdurahmonov as an "outspoken" journalist "known for his critical reporting on the authorities."
During the trial, prosecutors showed video footage allegedly made during by police during a search of the journalist's car. Defense attorney Rustam Tulaganov says the footage shows that the authorities conspired against the journalist.
"Everything has been staged. It's clear from the beginning of the video footage -- as the policemen open the boot of the car and they know exactly where to look for a plastic bag," Tulaganov says.
"Then they take the bags and say [to the camera], "this one is drugs" and "that is opium." The bags were tied with scotch tape. A person who had tied the tape would leave his fingerprints, but Salijon-aka's fingerprints have never been found in any of these. In my opinion, Salijon was framed. It's one big setup."
EU Reviews Sanctions
The court's decision comes only days before the EU is due to review Uzbekistan's human rights record to determine whether to continue the suspension of sanctions imposed on Tashkent in the aftermath of the 2005 public uprising in the eastern city of Andijon. The antigovernment protest was crushed by government forces, leaving scores dead and souring Tashkent's relationships with the West.
As a precondition for reviewing the sanctions, which include a travel ban on senior officials, the EU has called on Uzbekistan to stop harassment of civil society and release imprisoned activists and dissidents.
Elsa Vidal, who covers Europe and former Soviet countries for RSF, says the Paris-based rights group is set to call on the EU to consider Abdurahmonov's case when discussing Uzbek sanctions next week.
Vidal says the Uzbek court's sentencing of Abdurahmonov proves that the EU "strategy of bargaining with Uzbek authorities for democratization in the country is not working," and that it is now time for a "tougher stance toward Uzbekistan."
Vidal calls the overall media situation in Uzbekistan "appalling."
Uzbek authorities have been widely criticized for their intolerance of free media and dissent in any form. The authorities have closed down the RFE/RL and BBC bureaus in Uzbekistan and have blocked access to regional news websites such as fergana.ru, UzNews, and UzMetronom.
Jamshid Karimov, an independent journalist, has been held in psychiatric detention since 2006 and has reportedly been subject to forcible psychiatric treatment.
Many other journalists, including Qudrat Babajanov, Galima Bukharbaeva, and Natalya Bushueva have fled the country fearing their safety.
HRW says Abdurahmonov's case shows that "anyone who dares to speak out remains vulnerable to be locked up at any time" in Uzbekistan.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report