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Uzbekistan: New Tactics Force Critic Of Government To Flee

Troubles continue to plague the director of a private television station in western Uzbekistan that was shut down by government authorities nearly two years ago. Shukhrat Babajanov, whose ALC-TV television station was closed in 1999 just prior to Uzbek parliamentary and presidential elections, has met repeated resistance in his attempts to have the station's license reinstated. This month, Babajanov fled the country after law-enforcement authorities called him in for questioning on an unrelated matter dating back 10 years. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 17 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When authorities in the western Uzbek city of Urgench shut down Shukhrat Babajanov's private ALC-TV television station in 1999, it was only the beginning of his troubles.

Babajanov, whose station had irritated local officials for its failure to support mainstream candidates in the run-up to that season's parliamentary and presidential elections, has maintained a rocky relationship with Uzbek authorities ever since.

After losing several appeals to have ALC-TV's broadcast license reinstated, the director fled the country earlier this month when the Prosecutor-General's Office in Tashkent opened an investigation into whether Babajanov forged a letter of recommendation a decade ago.

Babajanov says the charges against him are false. Speaking to RFE/RL from an undisclosed location outside of Uzbekistan, Babajanov says he does not intend to seek asylum in another country despite his uncertain future at home:

"I have no plans [to seek asylum]. I am a citizen of Uzbekistan. I will continue to do work related to Uzbekistan. I want to change the system for the better. I am not asking any country to grant me asylum at this time."

Babajanov says he is worried that his actions may put his relatives still living in Uzbekistan at risk of government retaliation. But he says his concern is even greater for those who continue to fight for freedom of speech in Uzbekistan, where crackdowns on non-state media are on the rise.

Free-press advocates are calling Babajanov's case the latest attempt to silence critics of the Uzbek government. Alex Lupis, the Europe and Central Asia coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the forgery charges are just an attempt by the state to suppress independent journalism in the Central Asian republic:

"We believe that the nature and timing of these criminal forgery charges have nothing to do with this 10-year-old letter of recommendation, and have everything to do with silencing and independent and often critical television station. The government of Uzbekistan has led a campaign for several years against ALC-TV."

CPJ on 14 August released a statement criticizing the Babajanov case. This month's criminal charges date back 10 years and relate to a letter of recommendation that Babajanov, then an artist, presented to the Uzbekistan Union of Artists. The letter was allegedly written and signed by Ruzi Chariev, a well-known Uzbek artist. But authorities recently charged that Babajanov had forged the letter himself.

Babajanov argued in his defense that he had written the letter on behalf of Chariev, who could not write well in Uzbek. Ten years ago, it was not unusual for members of the urban elite in Soviet Central Asia to speak and write better in Russian than in their native language.

The forgery charges come just two months after Babajanov's latest attempt to register ALC-TV and resume broadcasting. In late June, the Uzbek cabinet's Interagency Coordination Commission rejected Babajanov's appeal despite statements of support for the television station from the U.S. State Department, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of Mass Media, Freimut Duve.

The station was closed in late November 1999, just weeks before Uzbekistan's parliamentary elections and less than two months before the country's presidential elections. ALC-TV's coverage was at times openly critical of the government. But local authorities justified the closure by saying the station lacked the proper alarm system to prevent any theft of its broadcast equipment. Lupis of CPJ says, with some irony, that this was a fairly novel approach:

"In terms of the alarm system, we can give the Uzbek government credit and acknowledge their creativity in finding a reason to shut down an independent television station."

Babajanov says he became aware of the forgery case through friends in a government ministry and decided to flee rather than face a summons for questioning. He says his decision was influenced by the fate of human rights activist Shovrukh Ruzimuradov, who died last month while in police custody. Although Ruzimuradov's death was officially ruled a suicide, witnesses say his body was mutilated and covered with bruises when it was returned to his family for burial, leading some to conclude he was tortured to death.

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