Area: 447,400 sq.km.
Languages: Uzbek, Russian, Tajik
Head of state: President Islam Karimov
The fight against terrorism is used as an excuse by this Central Asian US ally to step up its crackdown on the independent media. The authoritarian regime of President Islam Karimov has no qualms about using illegal methods to silence dissidents. Jailing them for sex offences is a standard practice which also includes critical journalists.
A news blackout followed the death of about 40 people in explosions, attacks, suicide-bombings and police reprisals in Tashkent and Bukhara on 29 March 2004. Many people first knew about the events through Russian TV stations and the Internet, as Uzbek TV and radio either delayed the news by half a day or completely ignored it. The attacks were officially blamed on Islamic extremists, notably the Hizb-ut Tahrir group, which denied being involved.
This censorship of key news shows the regime’s touchy attitude to the most sensitive topics. The case of journalist Ruslan Sharipov, jailed for homosexuality, is an example of how it uses illegal means to intimidate journalists who defy censorship, as well as local and international organisations trying to help civil society, such as the media aid group Internews-Uzbekistan, which was shut down by the government in September.
Sharipov, 26, who is also a human rights activist, won political asylum in the United States in late October after fleeing the country. He had been sentenced to four years in prison on 25 September 2003 for homosexuality and having sex with minors. Sharipov, who has never denied his bisexuality, said he did not know the alleged victims, who had been arrested on 25 May that year and detained for several days. His lawyers said they were beaten and threatened by police to get them to give evidence in court. The trial had to be put off several times when they did not appear.
Sharipov, ex-president of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU) and local correspondent for the Russian news agency Prima, was arrested on 26 May and forced to "confess" under torture, dismiss his lawyer and beg President Islam Karimov to forgive him for everything he had written criticising the authorities.
After yet another secret court hearing, the Khamzinki district court (in the Tashkent region) reduced his sentence on appeal on 23 June 2004 to two years community work in Bukhara (600 km from the capital) but he fled the country before being sent there.
Tulkin Karaev, correspondent of the international media aid and development organisation IWPR and the radio station Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was threatened on 15 April by state security (SNB) agents, who warned he would be accused of working with extremists if he did not change his coverage of the regime crackdown after the March bombings.
In early April, he had done several reports on the Iranian radio station about mass arrests of Muslims accused of being fundamentalists and terrorists and had cited accounts by victims of illegality, violence and abuses by security forces, including the planting of drugs on an imam after his arrest.
Two journalists are in prison. Jusuf Ruzimuradov, editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, was jailed for eight years and one of his journalists, Mohammed Bekzhanov, for 15 years on 18 August 1999 for supposedly intending to overthrow the government by force, belonging to an illegal organisation and insulting the president in the media. Members of Ruzimuradov’s family were threatened with rape, and torture and psychological pressure to persuade him to "confess."
2 journalists were in prison
2 were threatened
and 2 media censored
"I was very cruelly tortured"
Journalist and human rights campaigner Ruslan Sharipov was sentenced to five and a half years in prison in August 2003 for homosexuality and sexual relations with minors. Now living in the United States, he describes his painful ordeal.
Do you think the sex charges were trumped up by President Islam Karimov’s henchmen to trap and silence you?
My articles denouncing the corrupt officials in total control of the media and the violations of basic rights and freedoms have always infuriated the government, which doesn’t tolerate any criticism. The state security services and top officials warned me several times that I risked being thrown in prison or even killed.
But I kept on speaking out, so I and my colleagues were the target of physical attacks and provocations. They tried to charge me with drug trafficking and a colleague of having ties with an Islamic political party. But it was just to scare us. Nobody would’ve believed I was a drug dealer or a religious fanatic.
Just before I was sent to prison, I got a final warning and was invited to leave the country quickly. The regime had a plan to get rid of me, using my homosexuality as a central charge, and to invent evidence.
What were your conditions of detention?
They improved in October 2003. Before then, I was very cruelly tortured physically and psychologically. I was injected with mysterious substances and they threatened to inject me with the AIDS virus. They put bags over my head and gas masks over my face and made me write a letter saying I’d killed myself. They also sprayed gas in my mouth to choke me and gave me electric shocks on my ears and other body parts. The torture was mostly done at the anti-terrorism section of the interior ministry.
Why did you confess?
The authorities ran into a snag because my lawyers, Surat Ikramov and Ravil Gayazov, could show the court there was no evidence against me. They would have won the trial. That’s why the authorities had to put enormous pressure on me, which included torture. They told me that if I didn’t challenge my own lawyers and didn’t agree to my mother being at the trial, everyone would be in danger. One of my lawyers was beaten up and hospitalised with serious injuries.
How much freedom do independent journalists have?
A journalist or a human rights activist very rarely accuses a government member or police officer by name. Under Karimov’s harsh regime, many journalists and human rights choose to cooperate secretly with the authorities and only make authorised criticism. Others feel safer censoring their own articles.
A good example is when Rustam Erkabaev, a senior interior ministry official in charge of fighting corruption and organised crime, sued Karimov before the constitutional court and nobody dared to mention it. He was purged after trying to investigate senior government figure Turop Kholtaev for extensive corruption.