The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Uzbekistan to end its harassment of bloggers covering social and religious issues and to release at least four people reportedly arrested for their writings on religious matters.
In urging action, CPJ on September 6 cited the cases of Adham Olimov, Ziyodulla Kabirov, Otabek Usmanov, and Khurshidbek Muhammadroziqov, who were reportedly arrested in various cities between August 28 and September 2.
"Uzbekistan's roundup of bloggers signals that the country is not serious about improving the environment for press freedom," said Gulnoza Said, the New York-based watchdog’s research associate for Europe and Central Asia.
"Authorities should release the detained bloggers and ensure that journalists are allowed to comment freely on issues important to Uzbek society," she added.
Under the rule of the late President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan maintained a tight rein over Islam and Muslims were often prosecuted for practicing their religion outside state-controlled mosques, CPJ said.
His successor Shavkat Mirziyoev, who came to power in 2016, has sought to open up Central Asia's most populous country and move away from Karimov's oppressive policies.
While praising many of the efforts, rights groups have continued to express concerns about free speech, censorship, and prosecutions of journalist in the country.
In its statement, CPJ said that the detained bloggers write on social and religious matters, often pressing for a greater role for Islam in society and mainly on Facebook, “given limitations on the independent press in Uzbekistan.”
The watchdog said the Prosecutor-General's Office did not respond to its telephone requests for information on the arrests.
It quoted news media as saying that Olimov, publishing under the name Musannif Adham; Kabirov, a blogger and religious scholar known as Ziyovuddin Rahim; and Usmanov, who writes for a local religious website, had been arrested, fined, and sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 days.
Much of their recent writing had focused on Islamic issues, including expressing opposition to a ban on the sale of the hijab in the country.
CPJ also said that police detained Muhammadroziqov in the eastern city of Kokand.
The group quoted supporters as saying that the whereabouts of Muhammadroziqov, who has been critical of the government's transition to the Latin alphabet and educational reforms, were unknown.
The watchdog said it was investigating the cases of other bloggers that local rights groups say have been detained and were either still being held or released after administrative arrest.