International concern over the treatment of journalists in Uzbekistan has intensified following the imprisonment and recent sentencing of two Uzbek journalists, Umida Niyazova and Gulbakhor Turayeva. Both women reported on events in Andijan in 2005, when Uzbek government forces reportedly killed hundreds at an anti-government protest.
Niyazova was sentenced to seven years in prison in May 2007 by authorities in Tashkent, but the sentence was suspended after she apologized to the state and condemned the human rights organizations she reported for. Another journalist and human rights activist, Turayeva, was sentenced to six years in prison in April 2007, but she also received a suspended sentence when she confessed to all charges and apologized in court in June 2007.
On May 1, 2007 Niyazova was officially charged with illegally crossing the border to neighboring Kyrgystan, smuggling, and fostering unrest with the help of foreign funding. She had been in jail since January 22, when she was arrested by Uzbek authorities as she reentered Uzbekistan from Kyrgystan. According to Agence France-Presse, the United States denounced her arrest as “politically motivated.” Amnesty International called Niyazova a “prisoner of conscience.”
Niyazova had been working for the Central Asian news website Oasis, a project of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), she also wrote and worked as a translator for Human Rights Watch and worked with Freedom House and Internews Network.
Niyazova also reported on the Andijan massacre in May 2005, where, according to the Associated Press (AP), hundreds of civilians gathered to protest against the government of President Islam Karimov. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and his government has become notorious for suppressing opposition and silencing dissent. Survivors of the massacre and human rights groups have reported that hundreds of people were killed when government troops opened fire on the crowd of mostly unarmed protesters. The Uzbek government claimed Islamic militants fomented the Andijan uprising, and reported to various media outlets, including the AP, that the death toll was 187.
On May 8, Niyazova’s sentence was suspended by a judge when she confessed to all charges, apologized, and publicly rejected the organizations she had worked for, saying to Human Rights Watch representatives present at her hearing, “The work that you and I did was tendentious and potentially damaging to my country” according to Agence France-Presse. At her original trial on May 1, she pleaded not guilty. But on May 7, she stated before the court, “I plead guilty and deeply regret what I unwittingly did. I am deeply disappointed with some international organizations.”
According to BBC News, the Moscow-based news agency Web site Fegana.ru reported the court ruling as read by the judge: “The verdict of the Sirgali District Court is to be overturned and the punishment is to be replaced with a seven year suspended sentence.” Niyazova will now serve three years of probation, during which she must regularly report to the police and observe a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
German journalist Marcus Bensman told Radio Free Europethat he was happy that Niyazova was free, but that her arrest and trial demonstrated that “Uzbekistan has no justice” and that its government would jail or free people as it wished for political purposes.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Caseycalled Niyazova’s trial “hasty” in a statement to the AP in May. The Uzbek government gave Niyazova’s attorney only 30 minutes to prepare for her original hearing, and her appeal was heard just seven days later. Since Niyazova’s sentence, the European Union has considered renewing sanctions it imposed after the 2005 Andijan massacre. In his official statement to the Uzbek government, Casey wrote, “The United States calls again upon Uzbekistan to uphold its commitments to internationally protected human rights.”
On June 12, 2007 Gulbakhor Turayeva’s original sentence was replaced by a three-year suspended term after she too confessed to all charges and apologized, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres.
According to the AP, she received a six-year prison sentence on April 24, 2007 for “defamation, distributing documents liable to disturb the peace and trying to overthrow constitutional rule” under article 159 of the Uzbek criminal code, and on May 7 was also fined the equivalent of $648.
When her suspended sentence was handed down, Turayeva made a statement criticizing other journalists and international human rights organizations. The AP reported that the formerly outspoken critic of the Uzbek government said in her statement, “I thank the court for its clemency, its humanity and the respect it has shown me. I will now look for a new job and I will probably work for the government. I promise never to break the law again.”
According to the CPJ, Turayeva is an Andijan native who gave interviews to foreign media after the 2005 massacre at Andijan, claiming she saw 500 bodies piled up in a schoolyard, which directly contradicts the official government report. She also worked with rights organizations and local underground media to provide information to international media regarding the activities of the Uzbek government.
Turayeva had been in government custody for months before receiving a sentence. According to reports on the Global News Wire, Turayeva was returning from Kyrgystan on Jan. 14, 2007 with the youngest of her four children when she was stopped by Uzbek border police and searched. When she was found to have materials relating to her human rights activities along with books written by people who oppose the Uzbek government, she was arrested and taken into custody on the spot.
– Sara Cannon, Silha Center Staff