Human Rights Watch (HRW) has joined other rights organizations in condemning the arrest of Uzbek video blogger Otabek Sattoriy, calling the extortion case against him "dubious" and urging the Central Asian country's government to drop all charges and release him.
"Otabek Sattoriy's blogging on sensitive issues such as alleged corruption and farmers' rights has put him in local authorities' crosshairs," Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at HRW, said in a statement on February 12.
"Uzbek authorities should release Sattoriy, drop the charges for lack of evidence, and respect and protect freedom of expression," Rittmann added.
The 40-year-old founder and editor of the video blog Halq Fikiri (People's Opinion), which is streamed on his Telegram and YouTube channels, was detained in late January.
A court in the southern city of Termiz on February 1 placed him in pretrial detention on suspicion of extorting a new mobile phone from the head of a local bazaar.
HRW said in the statement that the authorities claim that Sattoriy extorted a new phone from the head of a local bazaar in Termiz, while his relatives and a colleague insist that unknown individuals attacked Sattoriy in late December when he was trying to collect material at the bazaar for his report about irregularities there.
The head of the bazaar later agreed to replace the broken phone and brought it to Sattoriy in late January, and several men in plain clothes detained the blogger right after that, HRW said,citing Sattoriy's relatives.
Sattoriy's lawyer has called the case against his client "fabricated."
"Targeting Sattoriy with questionable criminal charges is a blow to freedom of speech," HRW's Rittmann said. "The authorities should release Sattoriy from pretrial detention and, unless they can present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing, drop the case."
The Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, however, said on February 11 that the criminal case against Sattoriy was "lawful."
Since Shavkat Mirziyoev became president in late 2016, the Uzbek authorities have promised to ease media restrictions put in place by his predecessor, longtime authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, that earned the government a reputation as a chronic abuser of rights.
Despite some improvements, rights groups say the media is still being kept on a short leash.
Sattoriy has been known as a harsh critic of regional Governor Tora Bobolov. In one of his recent postings, Sattoriy openly accused the local government of launching fabricated criminal cases against bloggers and vowed to continue to raise the issue of corruption among officials despite the "crackdown."
The HRW statement comes on the heels of similar reports from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, which have also condemned Sattoriy's arrest and demanded his release.
Since his arrest, Sattoriy has already been tried in a separate case and was found guilty of defamation and distributing false information. According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the blogger was ordered to pay a fine for the offenses.
Uzbekistan is ranked 156th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.