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There have been some positive moves since Shavkat Mirziyoev camed to power, HRW says, but not enough.

Journalists and other critics of the government in Uzbekistan remain under pressure from legal restrictions, politically motivated prosecutions, and fear-induced self-censorship, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report.

“Despite an improved landscape for open debate and critical reporting…these actions undermine President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s stated reform goals," the New York-based rights group said in its report released on March 28.

HRW said its 37-page report -- titled You Can’t See Them, But They’re Always There: Censorship And Freedom Of The Media In Uzbekistan -- examined the environment for journalists, media outlets, and the exercise of free speech since Mirziyoev became president in September 2016.

Mirziyoev took over Uzbekistan after the death of authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who had ruled the predominantly Muslim country in Central Asia since the Soviet era. Mirziyoev has released political prisoners as part of an apparent policy of gradually reducing authoritarian control.

HRW said it found that despite some positive moves -- such as easing certain restrictions on free expression -- censorship remains a powerful barrier to free expression, and that journalists, writers, and citizens expressing critical views continue to face “selective prosecution.”

“Meaningful and lasting reforms in Uzbekistan are only truly possible if the government fully embraces free speech for all citizens and shows that criticism has a protected place in society,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for HRW.

“The way to put this into practice is to end censorship and the draconian prosecutions of journalists and support the growth of genuinely independent media.

“Mirziyoev should demonstrate that central to his reform is not just toleration of peaceful criticism of government policies -- whether by journalists, rights activists, journalists, or religious believers -- but genuinely valuing it,” he added.

Along with ending media censorship, HRW urged Uzbekistan to drop ongoing prosecutions of reporters and allow effective access to information, including online, as a means to “decisively break” with former leader Karimov’s “abusive legacy.”

The report said interviews with 22 journalists, editors, and media owners from 17 government-registered, independent, and international news outlets did turn up some gains in Uzbekistan, a country of 32 million people bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.

"Many reported that media freedom had increased slightly and described a dynamic and competitive environment in which new Uzbek-language and Russian-language publications have appeared," it said.

Nevertheless, it added, "all still pointed to fear of repression by security services as a major factor in the way they work."

"The continuing widespread intimidation of journalists by security services and the police leads to self-censorship in the media. With few exceptions, journalists said they still feared the professional repercussions if they exceeded the -- as of now unclear -- limits of the government’s tolerance," the report said.

Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General’s Office, says the equipment found for sale had been "demilitarized."

KYIV -- Amphibious armored-personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, off-road transport trucks, tanker trucks, and trailers were among some 200 objects that have been seized by Ukrainian police after being offered for sale online.

Vyacheslav Pechenenko, regional police chief of the Zhytomyr region, said on March 27 that the vehicles were discovered by police while investigating an oil pipeline leak in the town of Novohrad-Volynskiy some two weeks ago.

They were seized this week during raids by his officers and local military prosecutors.

Police said the vehicles were for sale on the Internet.

Pechenenko said that “as of now, the origin of the hardware is being looked into, including when it was registered at military units.”

Novohrad-Volynskiy is the headquarters for several Ukrainian military units subordinate to Operational Command North, including the 30th Mechanized Brigade, the 12th Operative Support Regiment, and the 54th Scout Battalion, the Kyiv Post reported.

Presidential adviser Yuriy Biriukov suggested the vehicles were more likely to have been military surplus bought by civilians.
Presidential adviser Yuriy Biriukov suggested the vehicles were more likely to have been military surplus bought by civilians.

​The seizure of the military vehicles and equipment has sparked a scandal in Ukrainian defense circles and shone a light on a murky online marketplace where equipment made for the battlefields of eastern Ukraine is being offered for sale to civilians.

It is still unclear if any of the seized military equipment came from any of those units. Police did not say where the military items had been advertised.

An online search by RFE/RL revealed several listings for similar military materiel in Ukraine. Most were found on the OLX website, a popular online marketplace that revealed dozens of military vehicles and equipment for sale.

Ukraine has spent much time and money in the past four years revamping its once decimated military. Any suggestion that it may be involved in corruption or that technology or equipment has leaked from its depots is embarrassing.

The former presidential spokesman for the military operation in eastern Ukraine, Andriy Lysenko, who is now a spokesman for the Prosecutor-General’s Office, claimed the police information was “untrue” and said the equipment had been “demilitarized.”

“In fact, the equipment in question is not combat and is not military at all,” Lysenko wrote on Facebook.

The news filled presidential adviser Yuriy Biriukov with indignation. In a rambling post on Facebook, Biriukov called the reports “fake news” and their authors “common liars, who rejoice in fake news, together with those who destroyed our army.” Punctuating his post, he added that they were “worse than the enemy.”

Rather than having been stolen, Biriukov suggested the vehicles were more likely to have been military surplus bought by civilians under a government decree signed in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now the leading political opponent of President Petro Poroshenko.

He claimed that none of those vehicles specifically had been recorded as ever having been used by the military in the past 10 years.

Zhytomyr police said they were working to track down the origin of the equipment. They are treating the case as one possibly involving official embezzlement and abuse of power, the punishment for which can be between three and eight years imprisonment.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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