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Arrest Of Popular Uzbek Commentator Sparks Vigorous Public Outcry

Khairullo Khamidov
Jailings of activists are all too frequent in Uzbekistan. To the chagrin of democracy advocates, they often receive little public attention.

Not so with this month's arrest of journalist Khairullo Khamidov, whose case has sparked an unusually strong wave of protest.

Khamidov, who hosted a popular program on a semi-private radio station, is well-known for his football commentaries and for a show focusing on Islamic values. He is also respected for his poetry.

After being detained by authorities earlier this month, the 34-year-old Khamidov is facing charges of “organizing or actively participating in a banned social or religious group,” an offense that could result in a five-year jail sentence. It remains unclear whether the charges relate to Khamidov's personal life or to his professional activities at the radio station, which receives government funding.

What is clear is that in the days since news of Khamidov's detention became widespread, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service has received an unprecedented outpouring of public reaction about the case.

'Shocked And Saddened'

Shukrat Babajonov, who has worked at RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service for nearly a decade, says he can't remember any similar story attracting so much attention.

“Within the first three days of his arrest, we got more than 300 comments -- mainly [from people] shocked and saddened by his arrest," Babajonov says.

The Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders notes that Khamidov's radio commentaries on religion and sports are so popular that they've been recorded and are "on sale in all of the region’s markets and can even be found on mobile phones in neighboring Tajikistan."

Babajonov says it's clear the majority of comments are coming from young people. More than half the country's population of 28 million is younger than 25.

“Most of these comments -- I can say about 90 percent -- are written in Latin rather than in Cyrillic," he says. "In 1998, the Latin script was officially introduced and all young people have used it since then."

One man, who identified himself as Saidazim, wrote:

He was very popular bro. Why throw him to cops? Khairullo can stand up for every word he says.

Another reader, who used the nickname "Poor," wrote:

Our state leader knowingly or unknowingly multiplies the number of his enemies. As I see it, if those who tell the truth are jailed, it’s going to be the last days of dictatorship....Now even ordinary people are against the government.
“Peasant” wrote from the capital, Tashkent, asking:

How can we put up with the fact that authorities jail our best patriots and innocent people like Khamidov?
Khamidov’s arrest stirred one woman to write: “Let the arrest of Khairulla Khamidov be a last drop for our patience and unite all the men and women of Uzbekistan to fight against dictatorship and its servants. Let’s unite and agree upon where and how...”

Khamidov’s case comes as Uzbek photographer Umida Ahmedova awaits trial. Ahmedova has been charged with defamation and damaging Uzbekistan's image for a series of documentary photographs and videos she took in remote villages.

Newspaper Closed

This is not the first time Khamidov has encountered difficulties with the authorities. In 2007, his newspaper “Odamlar Orasida” (Among the People) was closed down. “Odamlar Orasida” reported on social issues such as infant mortality, homosexuality, prostitution, and corruption -- all from a Muslim point of view.

Khamidov said at the time the newspaper was closed that authorities had cited breaches of the media law but didn’t say what the breaches were. In the five months it was allowed to publish, "Odamlar Orasida" attained a reported circulation of 24,000 in Tashkent.

Khamidov's choice of topics for his radio program – "Kholislik Sari" (Voice of Impartiality) – on the semiprivate radio Navruz were the same as those of his former newspaper -- topics the government would prefer not to have discussed publicly.

Khamidov may be best known for his programs on sports and religion, but his social commentary -- done primarily through poetry -- may be the real reason behind his detention. His poetry is distributed informally from person to person in written form, through recordings, and by text messages. Here is one example:
Our sins increase each day,
So that everybody laughs at us.
The whole world is wondering,
What’s happening to the Uzbeks?

Once we spread science and freedom,
And today we are in ultimate humiliation,
And the best at taking bribes,
What’s happening to the Uzbeks?

Detaining Khamidov poses a dilemma for the Uzbek government. State security forces have apparently been efficient in neutralizing secular and religious opposition groups in the country for nearly two decades. But the popular outcry over Khamidov’s case points to popular dissatisfaction among Uzbek youth.

Detaining, and possibly jailing, a figure who appeals so strongly to the average Uzbek could be a risky proposition.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service Director Alisher Sidikov, and Uktambek Karimov and Zamira Eshanova of the Uzbek Service, contributed to this report