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Uzbekistan: Rights Groups Say Press Crackdown Under Way

Rights groups say they have reason to suspect a renewed press crackdown in Uzbekistan. Since February, three journalists have been arrested, another jailed, one newspaper shut down and another suspended. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports that the situation for independent media in this Central Asian state was already poor.

Prague, 6 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Rights groups say they see evidence of a renewed crackdown on independent media in Uzbekistan.

Since February, three journalists have been arrested, another jailed, one newspaper shut down and another suspended indefinitely.

Caroline Giraud, a researcher at the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, said her organization has seen a change for the worse in Uzbekistan recently and cites a case involving reporter Gairat Mekhliboev.

"We have noticed lately a crackdown on independent press," she said. "The case of Gairat Mekhliboev is the most upsetting because he was condemned to seven years jail."

An Uzbek court last month found Mekhliboev -- a journalist who writes on religious topics -- guilty of belonging to Hezb-ut Tahrir, a religious group banned by the Uzbek government.

The New York-based nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch released a statement questioning whether it was Mekhliboev's association with Hezb-ut Tahrir or his articles about religion that led him to prison. Elizabeth Andersen of HRW said: "Prosecuting Mekhliboev may have been a way for the government to send a signal to today's journalists not to overstep any boundaries."

Giraud says her organization agrees with the HRW assessment. "We have a lot of evidence to think that [Mekhliboev] was condemned for his work as a journalist," she says, noting that one of his articles mentioned at the trial was about religion.

Hezb-ut Tahrir advocates the creation of an Islamic Caliphate, or state, but says it does not call for violence to obtain that goal. The group admits Mekhliboev is a member.

Another case causing concern involves 61-year-old Ergash Bobojonov, arrested in February. Bobojonov is a member of "Birlik," an opposition party not registered but tolerated in Uzbekistan. He's also a journalist and has published articles about corruption in the Uzbek government in Kyrgyzstan.

A human rights activist in the Ferghana Valley, Abdusalom Ergashev, acting without a warrant, arrested Bobojonov on libel charges, according to police. He was released last week but the charges against him -- which include embezzlement and making death threats -- have not been dropped.

Bobojonov described his experience in detention for RFE/RL. "I am such a weak person, I weigh only 46 kilograms," he said. "They twisted my arm behind my back, beat me about the head, ripped my clothes and then dragged me naked in front of my family. This is how they humiliated me."

Police also recently arrested Tokhtomurad Toshev, the chief editor of the newspaper "Adolat." The charges against Toshev are hooliganism and embezzlement, but colleagues at the paper say it was Toshev's articles criticizing the Interior Ministry that are the reason for Toshev's arrest. "Adolat" has been suspended.

In another incident, on 22 February, police detained Oleg Sarapulov, an assistant to an independent journalist who publishes material on the Internet.

According to HRW, police held Sarapulov for two days without access to a lawyer. Sarapulov said the police were interested in a series of articles written since the start of the year and appearing on several websites.

The articles of "Khaknazarov and Co." detail alleged corruption and the power struggles that go on behind the scenes in Uzbekistan.

Bobomurat Abdullaev, the chairman of the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Ozod Ovoz (Free Voice), said simply possessing any of the articles is reason for arrest.

"Naturally, it you are found with these articles it opens the way to arrest, because all the articles are calling on people to act against the regime. According to Uzbekistan's laws on information security, this is illegal."

The Uzbek government has not commented on the arrests, but the closures follow a pattern started since independence in 1991.

Aaron Rhodes is the executive director of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation. His organization monitors the media situation in countries like Uzbekistan. He said his organization has noticed a worsening situation in Uzbekistan.

"Although state censorship has officially been abolished, the government retains a tight grip on the media. Everything that is published is closely monitored and media outlets and journalists who are critical of the government face repressive measures. In the first months of 2003, the number of arrests of independent journalists suggest a new wave of repression."

This week brought more closures. The newspaper "Milli Talim" (National Education) was closed down for alleged "grammatical errors" -- somewhat surprising for a newspaper connected with the Ministry of Education.

(Zamira Eshanova of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)