Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Uzbekistan: Uzbek Journalist's Case Makes Waves

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net

Uzbek Journalist's Case Makes Waves

As international rights groups raise the alarm, people in Uzbekistan share their concerns on social networking sites.

By Inga Sikorskaya - Central Asia

Nine days since journalist Sergei Naumov disappeared without trace while in police custody, the Uzbek authorities are giving nothing away.

Naumov, who reports on environmental and human rights issues in northwest Uzbekistan, was detained on September 21 and appeared in court in the town of Urgench the same evening. He was given a 12-day sentence for allegedly manhandling a woman in the street, an accusation he denied outright. He was not given a lawyer. (See Journalist Held Incommunicado in Uzbekistan.)

He should have been placed in a detention centre to serve for what is an administrative rather than criminal offence. But police, prosecutors, and officers of the National Security Service (SNB) have repeatedly told defence lawyers and others that they have no record of him.

Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, has been following the case closely, and told IWPR that she understood Naumov was held for three days in a police detention unit in Urgench, even though staff denied he was there. She fears that after that, he was removed by the SNB to an unspecified location. “When the Uzbek law-enforcement agencies conceal the whereabouts of a detainee, it is more than likely that they’re trying to extract testimony from him, against himself or against colleagues, she said.

Ataeva said it was important to raise international awareness of the case, as public pressure could influence even a government like Uzbekistan’s.

Tashpulat Yoldashev, a political scientist originally from Uzbekistan but now living in the United States, expressed concern at Naumov’s unexplained disappearance from police records. He said that pointed to an effort to torture Naumov into signing a false “confession” that would allow the authorities to lock him away for years.

“Human rights organisations, both international and local, and all people of good will must make the maximum effort to free this totally law-abiding man,” he said.

Indications that the case against Naumov was manufactured for political reasons, and his subsequent disappearance from the police and penal system, drew strong condemnation from rights groups abroad including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Russia’s Union of Journalists.

The OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said she had asked the Uzbek authorities for “information on the whereabouts of Naumov and the circumstances of his disappearance”.

Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement, “We call on authorities in the city of Urgench to immediately release Sergei Naumov and drop the baseless charges against him. Naumov was detained, denied a lawyer, held incommunicado, prosecuted, and sentenced all in one afternoon on what obviously are fabricated allegations meant to silence his independent reporting."

Access to foreign media and the internet are subject to massive restrictions in Uzbekistan – around 40 websites are blocked – but news of Naumov’s plight nevertheless percolated through. Some web users know ways around the blocks set up by state censorship agencies, and social networking sites offer an as yet unhindered way of sharing information.

According to the Internet World Stats website, nine million of Uzbekistan’s 29 million residents use the web, and some 150,000 use Facebook.

Some of the Facebook comments were outspoken in their criticism of the Uzbek government. One spoke of the “absurdity” of the charge brought against Naumov. Another argued that the Uzbek security services had driven themselves into a corner by committing one mistake after another, ending up by hiding Naumov away. “This has created to speculation that they are concealing him for fear his lawyer will spot signs of beating and make that publicly known, creating an even greater media reaction,” the poster said.

While bolder Facebook users called for a campaign to get Naumov released, others were more cautious, simply “liking” or reposting news and comments about the case.

On Odnoklassniki, a Russian social networking site used by people in other ex-Soviet states as well, some Russians expressed disappointment that people in Uzbekistan were not speaking up for Naumov more forcefully.

In Uzbekistan, web users no doubt recalled the closure of the local Arbuz.com discussion forum after people started discussing the Arab uprisings of 2011. The Uzbek security service began tracking down users through their IP addresses.

As well as messages of support, some comments posted on websites were hostile.

Some came from unabashed regime supporters alleging that the furore around the Naumov case was a plot to tarnish Uzbekistan’s good reputation. Others were more sinister, like one purporting to be from a sympathiser and urging like-minded people to take to the streets in mass protests. (In a past article, IWPR looked at the way the Uzbek secret service uses the web to spread disinformation: Central Asia's "Troll Wars".)

The level of internet activity around the Naumov case is unprecedented, according to a Tashkent-based journalist who asked not to be named.

“The Naumov case has been remarkable for the growing activity of social networking site users,” the journalist said. “Quite recently, it would have been rare for anyone to comment on the reports periodically produced from human rights defenders on violations of civil rights. In my view, the current activity has prompted the broad international media campaign in defence of this well-known journalist.”

Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, based in Bishkek.