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Uzbekistan17 March 2003

Journalist jailed for six and a half years for writing about religion

Gayrat Mekhliboyev’s seven-year jail sentence was reduced by six months by an appeal court on 14 March, which struck down his convictions for incitement to religious hatred (article 156 of the criminal code) and belonging to an illegal organisation (article 216). He plans to file a further appeal.

Reporters Without Borders expressed concern today at the sentencing of an Uzbekistan journalist to seven years in prison for writing about religion and suggested it was a device to crack down on the media and regime opponents in general.

Journalist Gayrat Mekhliboyev was convicted by a Tashkent court on 18 February of belonging to the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahir, possessing "illegal written material" and using his journalistic activities to promote religion, public discussion of which is tacitly forbidden.

"The charges against him are too similar to those used in other unjustified prosecutions of independent journalists and government opponents for them to be believed," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard in letters to the country’s prosecutor-general and to interior minister Zokirzhon Almatov.

"We remind you that prison terms for press offences are in total contradiction with international press freedom standards. We ask you to see that the hearing of his appeal against the sentence is just and fair and that his statements about being tortured while in detention are taken into account."

Mekhliboyev was arrested on 24 July last year in a Tashkent market during an anti-government demonstration (which he denied taking part in), a month after he finished a journalism course at Tashkent University.

His trail opened on 5 February, when he was accused of writing an article in the 11 April 2001 issue of the newspaper Khurjat headed "The scales of justice," in which he allegedly expounded the ideas of the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahr.

He admitted having studied the party’s doctrines but denied possessing banned writings and said he had produced the article on the basis of his own ideas. He told the court he had been beaten while in detention awaiting trial and forced to sign a letter begging forgiveness for his crimes. After his conviction and sentence, he was given until 28 February to appeal.

Three journalists are currently in prison in Uzbekistan and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, said last December that the torture of opponents of President Islam Karimov’s government was routine.

Jusuf Ruzimuradov, editor of the opposition newspaper Erk, was sentenced to eight years in prison and one of his journalists, Mohammed Bekzhanov, for 15 years on 18 August 1999 for wanting to overthrow the government, belonging to an illegal organisation and insulting the president in print, which is punishable under article 158.3 of the criminal code. Threats of rape of family members, torture and psychological pressure were used to extract confessions from Ruzimuradov.

Majid Abduraimov, of the weekly Yangi Asr, who criticised government and legal officials, was arrested on 10 March 2001 and jailed on 1 August for 13 years for corruption.

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