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U.K./Uzbekistan: English Poet Uses Verse To Defend Jailed Uzbek Journalist

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo) In "Open Poem To President Karimov," English poet Richard McKane addresses the fate of Sobirjon Yoqubov, a 22-year old journalist arrested in Uzbekistan last month on charges of unconstitutional activity. Through his poetry, McKane has in his own way joined those who have come to Yoqubov's defense in the belief that he is innocent and the charges against him are politically motivated.

Prague, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL). McKane says he has a "special passion for human rights."

In his poem "Open Poem To President Karimov," McKane calls on Karimov to use his powers to "uphold the spirit of freedom of expression in Uzbekistan":

"I continually think on the fate of Sobirjan / a fine journalist but only a young man: / there he is in the Tashkent can, / we have to unite forces and do what we can."

Yoqubov, a 22-year-old correspondent for the Tashkent-based newspaper "Hurriyat," was arrested in Aprilon charges that he had violated an article of the Uzbek Criminal Code by attempting to "overthrow the constitutional order."

Those charged and convicted under the legislation, known as Article 159, mostly include peaceful devout Muslims who practice their faith outside the state-controlled mosque. These include alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organization that espouses the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia and which formally rejects violence.
"I continually think on the fate of Sobirjan / a fine journalist but only a young man: / there he is in the Tashkent can, / we have to unite forces and do what we can."

Yoqubov's colleagues at "Hurriyat" said he is a moderate Muslim who has written on Islamic issues and about his own pilgrimage to Mecca. His article about the hajj was titled "A Journey To The Land Of Dreams."

Yoqubov also wrote about the killing of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze: "Mr. President of Uzbekistan, / in your fine residence, do you understand / what your regime's doing in imprisoning this young man? / With all due respect, the process seems underhand."

International media-watchdog organizations such as Reporters Without Borders, the International Press Institute, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned Yoqubov's arrest. These organizations, along with Yoqubov's colleagues at "Hurriyat," said the authorities might be using accusations of religious extremism to punish the journalist for addressing a controversial political issue.

Yoqubov faces a 20-year prison term, if convicted.

To show his support, McKane in April penned another -- this one an ode to Yoqubov -- in which he wrote that although the journalist is young, he is "not too young to know and show a world corrupt and bent."

McKane said such poems can send a more powerful message to Uzbek authorities than letters.

"I feel that letters to the president [Islam Karimov] that were written in the past -- for instance, I wrote letters on [Mamadali] Makhmudov and [Safar] Bekjon, and other colleagues of mine have written to the president and the Ministry of Justice -- do not have an impact that an open poem does," McKane said.

McKane, who is also a member of the Writers in Prison Committee of the organization English PEN, has translated into English works by Stalinist-era poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, and Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. McKane said he seeks to "utilize strength" he gets from these poets who confronted the regimes under which they lived and worked.

McKane notes in his poem that Yoqubov lives in Tashkent, the same city in which celebrated poetess Akhmatova spent nearly four years (1941-44) in exile during Josef Stalin's reign.

McKane said that journalist Yoqubov's fate might be similar to those of jailed Uzbek poet Mamadali Makhmudov and fellow poet Safar Bekjon, who was imprisoned and then fled the country. All are victims of the current Uzbek regime's oppressive policy toward freedom of speech, McKane said.

"I write this dialogue for the Uzbek peoples' profit / and for the freedom and future of Sobirjan / and the writers and journalists you have unjustly imprisoned, / including Mamadali Makhmudov and Muhammed Bekjon, / for none other than their fight for freedom of expression."

McKane said the current situation in Uzbekistan is equal in its cruelty to the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. Therefore, he said, it is important for Uzbek dissidents to receive the same kind of support from the West that Soviet dissidents had in the 1970s.

"They [people in Uzbekistan] often know that somebody in the West cares, but they also need to know that we care sensitively, and that we are the part of the struggle, the human rights struggle which is a pacifist, a peaceful struggle and a struggle which is best adopted by words. This is a tradition which I honor of 'glasnost' in Russia where the dissidents worked with words and demonstrations."

In his open poem, McKane calls on President Karimov to "let [his] regime begin to uphold the spirit of freedom of expression in Uzbekistan, long awaited -- while it still can!"

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Khurmat Babadjanov interviewed Richard McKane for this report.)