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Uzbekistan26 September 2003

Journalist and human rights activist sentenced to four years in prison

Reporters Without Borders today denounced as "disgraceful" a four-year prison sentence imposed on Uzbekistan journalist and human rights activist Ruslan Sharipov by a Tashkent court and called for his immediate release, as well as an enquiry into face injuries visible on him at the 25 September appeal hearing and other violence against him in detention.

The court cut his original sentence of five and half years for homosexuality (article 120 of the criminal code) and for sexual relations with a minor (article 128) and withdrew the charge of inciting minors to anti-social behaviour (article 127). He is expected to appeal further to the supreme court.

"This was a dreadful trial of a man who has for years been under government pressure to give up his human rights campaigning and stop criticising the authorities," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard.

"This, as well as pressure on him to confess, the beating up of his lawyer on 28 August and the violation of legal defence rights seem part of an effort to silence the country’s most outspoken dissidents. Every day he spends in prison means more risk of being tortured and threatened." He called for an investigation of the lack of defence rights.

Several journalists, human rights activists and Western diplomats were barred from the closed appeal court hearing. Officials told the court Sharipov’s face injuries came from a road accident in which he was the only person injured. The judge, Shaygiaz Sharakhmetov, refused to adjourn the hearing even though Sharipov needed medical treatment. The judge had refused to free him on bail two days earlier when defence lawyers said they were being obstructed in preparing the appeal.

On 5 September, Sharipov wrote to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan saying he had "confessed" after being physically and psychologically tortured, threatened with death and forced to sign a bogus farewell letter to make it look as if he had killed himself in case he died in prison.

He said interior ministry agents had also threatened to beat up his lawyers if he did not dismiss them. One of them, human rights activist Surat Ikramov, was attacked by four thugs in Tashkent on 28 August just after he had been to see the judge in charge of the case on the eve of a planned demonstration in support of Sharipov.

A former head of the Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan (UIJU) and the local correspondent for the Russian news agency Prima, Sharipov was arrested on 26 March this year. On 8 August, he was forced to "confess," dismiss his lawyer and ask President Islam Karimov to forgive him for everything he had written criticising the authorities. The Mirzo Ulug-Beg district court in Tashkent then handed down the prison term on 23 August.

Sharipov, who has never denied he is bisexual, told Vasilya Inoyatova, head of the Uzbekistan human rights organisation E’zguilik, that he does not know the alleged victims, who had been arrested on 26 May and held for several days. His lawyer said the youths were beaten and threatened by police to get them to give evidence in court. The case was postponed several times because of their absence from the courtroom.

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