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Uzbekistan: Imprisoned Journalist Awarded Top Press-Freedom Prize

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) is awarding its 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award to imprisoned Uzbek journalist and rights activist Ruslan Sharipov.

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ruslan Sharipov this week received the World Association of Newspapers' (WAN) 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award for his "courageous resistance to attacks, torture, and constant harassment under President Islam Karimov's repressive regime."

Kajsa Tornroth is a director at the Paris-based organization, which defends and promotes press freedom worldwide. She described for RFE/RL what Sharipov did to earn the award: "[Sharipov] is the founder of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan, which helps promote free speech and journalist liberties in the country. He has also worked as a journalist for the Moscow-based news agency Prima, which distributes news on human rights violations. And he has reported regularly to the international scene about the state of the media and press freedom in Uzbekistan."

The 25-year-old Sharipov -- an admitted homosexual -- is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for engaging in homosexual acts and for having sex with minors. But many believe those charges are a pretext. In its statement, WAN said it believes Sharipov is in jail "because he has refused to bow to pressure to drop his criticism of the government and to stop his human rights work."

"First of all, Mr. Sharipov has had the courage to work for human rights and free expression in one of the most repressive countries in Central Asia. As a consequence of this, he has been pressured by the Uzbek government, physically attacked several times, but he has chosen to pursue his work. He is presently serving a prison sentence for something that we believe are politically motivated charges. And it is also strongly suspected that he has been tortured while in custody. And these are the reasons for us having contributed this prize to him," Tornroth said.

Sharipov was convicted of the charges in August. Originally, Sharipov had maintained his innocence, but he suddenly dismissed his lawyers, asked that his mother not be allowed to attend further court sessions, and told the court he was guilty of the charges against him.

According to WAN, Sharipov said he had been "physically and psychologically tortured into reversing his plea. He was injected with an unknown substance, forced to inhale a substance that caused respiratory problems, threatened with an injection of the HIV virus, and forced to write a suicide note."

Matilda Bogner is the representative in Uzbekistan for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. She has followed Sharipov's case and says she, too, believes he was jailed for his political views. "I believe it was a political move. It was not a fair and impartial court that examined the case as an independent court should," she said.

At a press conference with Uzbek officials in Tashkent earlier this month, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Lorne Craner said Washington believes Sharipov should be released. "We do believe, given all that, that [Sharipov] should be amnestied," he said.

Tornroth said she hopes Sharipov will be freed in time to receive his award. The ceremony is scheduled for May 2004 in Istanbul.

Last year, the Golden Pen -- which has been awarded annually since 1961 -- was given to the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

(Zamira Eshanova and Oktambek Karimov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)