Uzbek authorities told reporters not to politicize the death of a prominent journalist and outspoken government critic killed in a late-night road accident last week that many believe is suspicious.
Officials told reporters at a press conference in Tashkent on November 12 that Davlat Nazar’s death was simply a tragic traffic accident.
But the death of the 48-year-old journalist -- well-known for his critical reporting of the government -- has raised suspicions in Uzbekistan, where the government has little tolerance for dissent.
A correspondent for the private Jamiyat newspaper, Nazar (also known as Davlatnazar Ruzmetov) had been detained by authorities several times due to his critical reports and said he was being tailed by state agents in the time leading up to his death.
Nazar also told people he had been under constant pressure from authorities in his native Khorezm Province in addition to being followed.
Some 20 officials from the Interior Ministry and the State Agency for Information and Mass Communication as well as representatives of regional police and traffic police from Khorezm attended the November 12 press briefing, Tashkent-based independent journalist Abdurahmon Tashanov said.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office said in a statement that Nazar was hit by a minibus as he crossed a highway just before midnight on November 6.
Nazar “sustained head injuries and died at the scene of the accident” in Khorezm, the statement added.
At the two-hour press conference, officials showed numerous CCTV images and videos to show Nazar’s movements “in a chronological order” during the several hours prior to the fatal incident, Tashanov told RFE/RL.
“The video showed Nazar from the moment he had a meeting with his colleagues and friends [at a cafe]. Videos from the cafe, him bidding farewell, getting a taxi, footage from the scene of the accident -- all were shown in a video show,” Tashanov said.
Tashanov and several other Uzbek journalists who attended the press conference reported that authorities said Nazar’s death should not interpreted as anything more than a road accident.
Transparent Probe Requested
But the incident prompted suspicion and calls for transparent probes into the journalist’s death.
Nadezhda Ataeva, the chairwoman of the Paris-based Association of Human Rights for Central Asia, said Nazar had told her organization that he had been under secret service surveillance for almost three years prior to his death.
"Taking into account the situation Davlatnazar was facing before his death, his articles revealing corruption among local authorities, and illegal forced labor in the region, I can say that it is very likely that his death was not a traffic accident but a disguised assassination," Ataeva told RFE/RL on November 8.
Ataeva called for an "open and transparent investigation with the participation of international organizations that would contribute to finding out the truth."
"The death of a journalist inevitably arouses suspicions, especially the death of outspoken journalists like Davlat Nazar," Uzbek blogger Shahnoza Soatova wrote on Facebook. "We expect transparent investigations and comprehensive information regarding this matter."
Journalist Jamshid Niyozov urged his media workers to pay close attention to the deadly incident, which he said he hopes is not the “work” of authorities.
Niyozov warned that the death of a journalist known for his criticism of the government would not go unnoticed.
“Government agencies should know that it’s impossible to simply wipe a journalist off the face of the Earth,” he wrote on Facebook.
In the past two years, Nazar had been detained by authorities multiple times over his journalistic activities.
On October 5, Nazar spent five hours in police custody because of his reporting about forced labor in the cotton harvest, a topic he covered extensively.
He was also arrested on October 29, 2018, while trying to report from a local meeting of authorities to discuss the cotton harvest campaign.
In May, Nazar was found guilty of hooliganism and sentenced to seven days in detention. He told RFE/RL at the time that he was beaten and forced to sign a confession.
Nazar, who had also contributed to several stories for RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, had recently cited constant pressure from local authorities and said he was being constantly followed.
“I can’t leave the house. There are guards watching on both sides of my street,” Nazar said during a phone call to RFE/RL on October 12.
Nazar also said he had decided to temporarily leave Khorezm and move to the capital, Tashkent.
According to information obtained by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, Nazar had returned to Khorezm just one week before the road accident that took his life.