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Journalist's Unsolved Murder Has Silenced Criticism Of Uzbekistan

Friends and former colleagues of Alisher Saipov at his gravesite in Osh
Friends and former colleagues of Alisher Saipov at his gravesite in Osh
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan this month took a major step toward resolving a 17-year dispute over crucial water and energy resources that has been one of the biggest obstacles to friendly bilateral relations.

But there is another issue that no one in either country seems to want to raise.

Although the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz may be willing to share energy and water, no one is willing to accept any responsibility for the assassination one year ago of journalist Alisher Saipov.

Saipov was an ethnic Uzbek and prominent journalist based in Kyrgyzstan who reported for RFE/RL and Voice of America's Uzbek services, among others. He had just turned 26 when he was gunned down by unidentified assailants outside his office in southern Kyrgyzstan on October 24, 2007.

Unfortunately, any serious official investigation into his killing appears to have been buried along with Saipov.

He wrote tirelessly and forcefully about torture in Uzbek prisons. He documented the Uzbek government's crackdown against dissent and the deplorable living conditions of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan. He smuggled his own newspaper, the Uzbek-language "Siyosat" (Politics), from Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan.

Officials in Uzbekistan launched a smear campaign against Saipov long before his brutal murder. Uzbek television produced a documentary that depicted him as an extremist and accused him of accepting payment from abroad in exchange for "slandering" the Uzbek government. The propaganda onslaught continued after Saipov's death.

It should come as no surprise, then, that suspicion fell immediately on the Uzbek security service. It should also come as no surprise that the half-hearted probe into his murder -- not far from his offices and in broad daylight -- produced no results.

After the killing, the Kyrgyz police circulated a computer-generated image of the suspected killer and searched Saipov's office. They asked for Uzbek cooperation, but never really demanded it. And they never really got any.

It seems obvious now that those who presumably ordered the killing will never be identified. Kyrgyz investigators long ago stopped commenting on the case, and many observers believe inquiries have been deliberately stymied.

It also seems clear that Saipov's killers have largely achieved their aim: His colleagues have fallen silent; his newspaper has closed down.

With his death, fear and intimidation spilled across the border from Uzbekistan into the wider Uzbek community of the Ferghana Valley.

Although Kyrgyzstan has enjoyed a relatively free press since the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005, few journalists dare to criticize the repressive dictatorship across the border. And with the Kyrgyz government so clearly unable -- or unwilling -- to protect them, who can blame them?

Sojida Djakhfarova is the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL