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Uzbekistan: In Spite Of Public Outcry Journalist Remains Imprisoned

By Zamira Eshanova and Furkat Yakvalhodjayev

The case of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky has drawn widespread attention within Russia from people concerned that press freedoms there are being curtailed. Zamira Eshanova and Furkat Yakvalhodjayev of RFE/RL's Uzbek service report that press repression is happening in Uzbekistan, as well, but the public outcry has not been strong.

Prague, 2 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek journalist Shadi Mardiyev remains in prison, three years after being arrested under dubious circumstances and charged with defamation.

Mardiyev was a popular correspondent for Uzbek state radio in the Samarkand region, specializing in legal issues. He was well known for his satirical writing, particularly his reports on corruption within law-enforcement bodies.

In 1997, he wrote an article for broadcast focusing on Samarkand Deputy Prosecutor Talat Abdulkhalikzade. The article was entitled "Swindlers in Prosecutors' Uniforms."

Abdulkhalikzade later sued for defamation. The court approved the sentence even though the lawsuit lacked any compelling evidence. Mardiyev was arrested and given an 11-year jail sentence.

At the time, the arrest and sentencing seemed to contradict stated Uzbek policy on freedom of the press. Not long before, President Islam Karimov had publicly called on local journalists to be more courageous in their criticism of officials. Karimov said the Uzbek press should become a fourth branch of power (alongside the executive, judicial and legislative branches).

Our correspondent reports that international journalism and human-rights groups have made strong and repeated efforts to publicize Mardiyev's case. The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter just last month to Karimov in which they appealed directly for Mardiyev's release. The group based its appeal on grounds that Mardiyev's health is deteriorating.

But Anne-Marie Stott of the World Association of Newspapers tells RFE/RL that in spite of these international efforts, there has been little public comment and no action on the part of officials.

"We haven't received any reply. We've also been trying to contact the president's office, we've been requesting for some time now to meet the president and to send a delegation of publishers over to meet with President Karimov. But we've had no reply."

There may be some reason for optimism. Karimov -- responding recently to a question put to him by an RFE/RL correspondent -- said he was not personally familiar with Mardiyev's case but that he would look "seriously" into the matter and take appropriate action. Still, given Karimov's past record of high-minded words that are not backed by deeds, it's not clear how sincere he was.

Mardiyev's lawyer, Hakim Bobonorov, says that officials, so far, have not taken any action on Mardiyev:

"Nothing is happening. Moreover, [Mardiyev] has appealed to the Oliy Majlis, the parliament of Uzbekistan, and is still waiting for a reply with hope. But his health is deteriorating sharply."

International organizations say that they will not give up the fight.

Stott says her organization has sent letters to 18,000 publications worldwide. She says she has seen positive results in other countries with the release of journalists and has no intention of abandoning Mardiyev.