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Uzbekistan: Journalist Niyazova Released After Confessing

Umida Niyazova (file photo) (Courtesy Photo) May 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An appeals court in Uzbekistan has reduced the sentence of independent  journalist and human rights defender Umida Niyazova from seven years in prison to a three-year suspended sentence after she pled guilty and condemned her former employer.

"Of course, I am happy to be free after 3 1/2 months in detention," Niyazova told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service. "I want to thank very much all the people whom I know and don't know who have defended me during this difficult time."

On May 1, after a two-day trial, a court in Tashkent sentenced the 32-year-old Niyazova to seven years in prison for illegal border crossing, smuggling, and fostering unrest with the help of foreign funding.

The U.S.-basd Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Niyazova’s lawyer, Tatyana Davydova, was given only 30 minutes to prepare her defense for that trial.

The United States, the EU, the OSCE, and rights groups condemned the sentence.

A Condemnation In Court

In the courtroom today, Niyazova pled guilty to distributing antigovernment publications and crossing the border illegally. Standing in a cage, she read from a piece of paper and said she had been “under the influence” of international organizations.

“We are obviously thrilled that [Niyazova] is no longer languishing in a prison cell. She, of course, should never have been imprisoned in the first place.” -- Human Rights Watch

Niyazova has worked as a translator for the Tashkent office of Human Rights Watch for the last two years.

Previously, she reported on politics and human rights in Uzbekistan for the Central Asian news website site Oasis, which is run by the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

During her confession, she said she was “deeply disappointed in some people and international organizations” she has worked with, and pointed to a researcher for Human Rights Watch who was in the courtroom.

In New York, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, Veronika Szente-Goldston, told RFE/RL the group is grateful for Niyazova’s release.

“We are obviously thrilled that [Niyazova] is no longer languishing in a prison cell," Szente-Goldston said. "She of course should never have been imprisoned in the first place.”

She added that Human Rights Watch remains concerned about other human rights defenders who are still in prison in Uzbekistan.

“We are profoundly concerned about the other 14 human rights defenders who remain in prison and we call for their immediate release,” Szente-Goldston said. “And we call on the Uzbek government to immediately release them, and we call on the EU and Uzbekistan and other international partners to redouble their efforts to get the Uzbek government to release these other prisoners.”

EU Sanction Decision Looms

Niyazova’s release comes just days before a May 14 deadline for the EU to consider lifting the sanctions it imposed after the Uzbek government violently suppressed a demonstration in the city of Andijon in May, 2005.

Bodies of the dead in Andijon (epa)

The official death toll from the event is 187, but journalists and human rights activists say hundreds more died.

Last week, Germany -- which currently holds the EU Presidency -- issued a statement saying that Niyazova’s jailing was unacceptable, especially in light of the recent sentencing of another human rights activist, Gulbahor Turaeva, to six years in prison.

Germany said the two sentences “send a worrying signal by Uzbekistan in the perspective of an EU decision on whether to renew specific sanctions adopted in 2005 in relation to the Andijon tragedy.”

Outside the courtroom today, German journalist Marcus Bensmann praised the reduced sentence, but criticized the system that handed it down.

"I'm very happy that Umida is free now," he told RFE/RL. "But on the other hand, it shows that Uzbekistan has no justice. They can jail or free people [the way] they have [in this case], or [when] it's politically needed."

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

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