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Uzbekistan: Journalist Says He Wants To Defend Human Rights From Exile In U.S.

Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov was jailed on questionable charges in his homeland in 2003. International press-freedom groups condemned Sharipov's conviction, saying his sudden legal problems were connected to critical articles he had written about the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov. Under pressure from international watchdog groups and individual governments, Sharipov was recently allowed to leave Uzbekistan after being held for more than a year. RFE/RL spoke to Sharipov today in the United States, where he has been granted asylum.

Prague, 9 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-six-year-old independent Uzbek journalist Sharipov was jailed in 2003 on charges of committing homosexual acts with a minor. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, which was later reduced to three years.

Sharipov, the winner of the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers' 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award, had admitted his homosexuality, despite a Soviet-era law in Uzbekistan that prohibits such behavior.

At the time, international media-freedom organizations and human rights watchdogs -- including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists -- believed it was Sharipov's work -- and not his lifestyle -- that were behind his legal problems.

Sharipov concurred in an interview today from his new home in California: "Starting in 2001, I worked for the Russian information agency PRIMA that focuses on human rights and media matters in various republics and countries. I was their correspondent in Uzbekistan. Mainly, my articles were about abuses by the militia and the corruption of top officials."

Sharipov said threats against him and his colleagues began to be made soon after his articles appeared on various Internet sites. If the authorities missed the articles on the Internet, they were unlikely to miss them when they appeared in their offices, however.
Sharipov said one of his friends at PRIMA was detained on charges of Islamic extremism but released when international rights organizations pointed out that he was an ethnic Russian from Russia and not even a Muslim.

"We sent our articles to the government, to the presidential apparatus, the Interior Ministry, the National Security Service and other ministries," Sharipov said. "And according to Uzbek law, the government is obligated to read them, and this brought our work to their attention."

Sharipov worked with independent Uzbek human rights groups while he continued his writing. Sharipov said other independent journalists were willing to voice criticism, too, but did not want to address it toward anyone in particular. He said he and a few of his colleagues, however, named officials and wrote about their alleged misdeeds.

The pressure on Sharipov grew. He said he was followed, that his home was put under 24-hour surveillance, and that he was attacked by unknown people and taken to hospital. He said a friend at one of the human rights groups was detained on charges of Islamic extremism but released when international rights organizations pointed out that he was an ethnic Russian from Russia and not even a Muslim.

Sharipov said he was not so fortunate and recounted the events of May 2003: "[The Uzbek authorities] arrested me on 26 May 2003. Six days before, they [had] made their last threat. I was told specially that if I didn't leave Uzbekistan, I would either have to stop my work or something unbelievable would happen to me. And sure enough, on 26 May, they arrested me right in the center of Tashkent. During my detention and trial, it turned out that the people who were warning me [to stop work or leave the country] were representatives of the department for antiterrorism in the Interior Ministry."

Sharipov pleaded not guilty at his court hearings. His lawyers managed to prove that there were no grounds for charging Sharipov with extremist activity. New charges of being a homosexual and engaging in homosexual activity with minors replaced the earlier charges.

Rights and media-freedom organizations claimed Sharipov was being tortured in detention. Sharipov said these reports were true: "They started subjecting me to the cruelest torture. They put antigas clothing on me, then burned different substances around me, things like cotton and other material. And in the antigas suit, you can't breathe, and a person starts to suffocate. And at that moment, they have a machine that revolves like an arm coming from the side of the body and the faster it turns the more of an electric shock it gives out. They used other methods on me also. They put cellophane bags on my head [to cause suffocation]. There were other things too frightening to recount."

Unable to obtain a confession, Sharipov said his jailers changed tactics before his 8 August 2003 court appearance: "I continued to plead not guilty, so they threatened to suffocate me or inject me with HIV, or something that would cause my throat to swell and eventually choke me. On that day, they forced me to plead guilty. They didn't just force me to plead guilty. They forced me to dismiss my lawyer and request that my mother not be allowed [to attend my trial]. And this allowed them to convict me."

International rights and media-freedom organizations kept up the pressure, suspecting Sharipov's sudden change of plea was the result of threats and torture.

Sharipov's fortunes took a turn for the better last November, when the World Association of Newspapers named him the winner of its Golden Pen of Freedom award for 2004. Sharipov said fellow inmates found out about his award from the BBC and told him.

Sharipov said that from that moment, his jailers were more careful about how they treated him.

In June, Sharipov had the rest of his prison sentence replaced by two years of community service. He said he believed he was being transferred to his hometown of Bukhara to fulfill that service, but was told that a deal had been worked out and that he had to leave the country.

Instead of going to Bukhara, Sharipov says he was taken across the border into Kazakhstan, where he boarded a train for Moscow. He arrived in the Russian capital on 28 June. Sharipov was eventually granted asylum in the United States and arrived there on 21 October.

Sharipov credited the international community for his release, particularly the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent and Galima Bukharbaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Sharipov said he is looking for ways to continue his work defending human rights and promoting freedom of speech in Uzbekistan from his new home in the United States. This week, he sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush asking that the war on terrorism not be used as a pretext in Uzbekistan for violating human rights and stifling freedom of speech.

Uzbekistan is a key regional ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism but has been criticized for its human rights violations and lack of media freedom.