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Supporters of the former grand mufti protest outside UKMK headquarters on February 11.

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's former top Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Maksatbek Hajji Toktomushev, has been released from custody and ordered not to leave Bishkek while investigations are carried out over allegations of corruption.

A court in Bishkek ruled late on February 11 that Toktomushev may be released as long as he does not leave the capital until the case goes to trial.

Dozens of Toktomushev's supporters rallied in front of the court building while the former grand mufti's pretrial restrictions were being defined.

On February 10, the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said Toktomushev was suspected of being involved in the alleged misuse of funds raised by worshipers for a hajj pilgrimage to Mecca later this year.

Toktomushev, who in his capacity was also head of Kyrgyzstan's Religious Directorate -- the state agency in charge of Islamic affairs -- had handed in his resignation over the affair on February 10.

The directorate's press office told RFE/RL that Toktomushev's place will be taken by his deputy until a replacement is elected.

The UKMK announced on February 10 that the directorate's chief accountant, whose identity was not disclosed at the time, had been arrested on suspicion of misusing the equivalent of almost $2 million raised by worshipers.

According to the UKMK, the accountant's arrest occurred on February 9 during an alleged attempt to bribe a UKMK officer.

On February 12, the Birinchi Mai district court sent the accountant, who was identified as Jenishbai Bekiev, to pretrial detention until April 10.

The directorate's press office has said that it won't publicly comment on the case until after the trial.

A majority of the Central Asian nation's population of 6 million are Sunni Muslims.

Otabek Sattoriy has openly accused the local government of launching fabricated criminal cases against bloggers and vowed to continue to raise the issue of corruption among officials despite the "crackdown."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined other rights organizations in condemning the arrest of Uzbek video blogger Otabek Sattoriy, calling the extortion case against him "dubious" and urging the Central Asian country's government to drop all charges and release him.

"Otabek Sattoriy's blogging on sensitive issues such as alleged corruption and farmers' rights has put him in local authorities' crosshairs," Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at HRW, said in a statement on February 12.

"Uzbek authorities should release Sattoriy, drop the charges for lack of evidence, and respect and protect freedom of expression," Rittmann added.

The 40-year-old founder and editor of the video blog Halq Fikiri (People's Opinion), which is streamed on his Telegram and YouTube channels, was detained in late January.

A court in the southern city of Termiz on February 1 placed him in pretrial detention on suspicion of extorting a new mobile phone from the head of a local bazaar.

HRW said in the statement that the authorities claim that Sattoriy extorted a new phone from the head of a local bazaar in Termiz, while his relatives and a colleague insist that unknown individuals attacked Sattoriy in late December when he was trying to collect material at the bazaar for his report about irregularities there.

The head of the bazaar later agreed to replace the broken phone and brought it to Sattoriy in late January, and several men in plain clothes detained the blogger right after that, HRW said,citing Sattoriy's relatives.

Sattoriy's lawyer has called the case against his client "fabricated."

"Targeting Sattoriy with questionable criminal charges is a blow to freedom of speech," HRW's Rittmann said. "The authorities should release Sattoriy from pretrial detention and, unless they can present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing, drop the case."

The Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, however, said on February 11 that the criminal case against Sattoriy was "lawful."

Since Shavkat Mirziyoev became president in late 2016, the Uzbek authorities have promised to ease media restrictions put in place by his predecessor, longtime authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, that earned the government a reputation as a chronic abuser of rights.

Despite some improvements, rights groups say the media is still being kept on a short leash.

Sattoriy has been known as a harsh critic of regional Governor Tora Bobolov. In one of his recent postings, Sattoriy openly accused the local government of launching fabricated criminal cases against bloggers and vowed to continue to raise the issue of corruption among officials despite the "crackdown."

The HRW statement comes on the heels of similar reports from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, which have also condemned Sattoriy's arrest and demanded his release.

Since his arrest, Sattoriy has already been tried in a separate case and was found guilty of defamation and distributing false information. According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the blogger was ordered to pay a fine for the offenses.

Uzbekistan is ranked 156th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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