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Kyrgyzstan Pressured Over Detained Uzbek Reporter

Youths in face masks walk through a street market in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, July 24, 2020. The attorney for jailed journalist Bobomurod Abdullaey says Kyrgyzstan officials are refusing to grant access to his client due to a mandatory coronavirus quarantine.
Youths in face masks walk through a street market in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, July 24, 2020. The attorney for jailed journalist Bobomurod Abdullaey says Kyrgyzstan officials are refusing to grant access to his client due to a mandatory coronavirus quarantine.

The U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan has joined calls for Kyrgyzstan to free an Uzbek journalist facing extradition to his home country where, the reporter says, authorities previously tortured him into making false confessions.

Bobomurod Abdullaev, who is based in Germany, was detained by Kyrgyz intelligence at a cafe in the nation's capital, Bishkek, on August 9. The following day, a district judge said the arrest stemmed from an extradition request by Uzbek officials who accuse Abdullaev of “disseminating materials that target the constitutional order of Uzbekistan via social media.”

"The Governments of both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan should respect Mr. Abdullayev’s freedom of movement and allow him to depart the Kyrgyz Republic to his destination of choice," Daniel Rosenblum, the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, said via Twitter last week.

"[Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev] spoke eloquently about media freedom and journalists’ rights in his Constitution Day speech last December, and many times since," Rosenblum wrote. "The U.S. agrees that a free and independent media is indispensable to a functioning democracy."

Outside the court earlier this month, Abdullaev said he had recently been accused of operating an anonymous Facebook account that publishes allegations of corruption by government officials under the Uzbek president.

In July, Abdullaev posted a video to YouTube denying he was behind the anonymous account, known as “Qora Mergan,” or "Black Sniper," which, combined with its pseudonymous Telegram account, has at least 3,000 followers.

During Abdullaev's Aug. 10 hearing, the "Black Sniper" account posted a statement denying any connection to him.

Abdullaev, 47, has filed stories for the independent regional news site Fergana, Radio Ozodlik, and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Radio Ozodlik is the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a VOA sister outlet run by the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

The journalist traveled to Kyrgyzstan from Germany in February for a four-month training program at the American University of Central Asia but became stranded by coronavirus flight restrictions.

After hearing Abdullaev's plea of not guilty, the judge remanded the reporter into custody of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, Kyrgyzstan's agency for intelligence on counterterrorism and organized crime, for up to 30 days pending extradition.

Timur Karabaev, Abdullaev's attorney, told VOA's Uzbek service that officials are refusing to grant access to his client due to a mandatory coronavirus quarantine.

“We were just told that we could meet on August 12, but now they say that Abdullaev has been taken into a 14-day quarantine, and that we're not allowed to meet," he said, adding that officials also refused to forward to Abdullaev legal documents that required his signature to initiate the appeals process.

Kyrgyzstan’s embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment on Karabaev’s accusation.

Karabaev, who is based in Bishkek, called the court ruling illegal and maintained that Kyrgyz law allows for client access under any circumstances.

The journalist’s lawyer and international press freedom groups that previously advocated for Abdullaev warn the journalist is at risk of torture if extradited. Karabaev has asked the Bishkek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to grant Abdullaev political refugee status.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture in November 2019 reported that torture and ill-treatment in Uzbekistan are routinely used "principally for the purpose of extracting confessions or information to be used in criminal proceedings.”

The committee cited reports of judicial “disregard" and dismissal of allegations that confessions were obtained through torture.

Uzbekistan’s embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has long documented what it says is Uzbekistan’s torture of detainees, including beatings, rape, electric shock, and threats to relatives.

“Given the risk of torture Abdullaev faces in Uzbekistan if he is sent back, Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general should refuse the Uzbek authorities’ request,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release. “Kyrgyz authorities know that under international law, they are barred from returning anyone to a place where they would likely be tortured or persecuted for their political beliefs or exercise of their basic rights.”

Not first run-in with Tashkent officials

Uzbek authorities previously arrested Abdullaev in September 2017, accusing him of promoting a violent overthrow of the state in a series of "extremist" articles published under the pseudonym Usman Haqnazarov.

Abdullaev admitted to having used that pen name for 15 years — a common practice for Uzbek political analysts — but denied that his articles promoted violence. He was sentenced to five years in prison, where he said he was forced into making false confessions by torture.

He was released early after a court commuted his prison term to community service, and in November 2019, Abdullaev relocated to Germany, as part of the emergency assistance program run by press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which is also demanding his release.

RSF has called on Kyrgyz authorities to allow him to return to Germany.

"He must not under any circumstances be extradited to Uzbekistan, where he faces prison and torture,” Michael Rediske, president of RSF Germany, said in a press release.

Gulnoza Said, of the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists, also raised concerns for the journalist’s welfare.

“Abdullaev has suffered at hands of Uzbek security services for his journalism in the past and could be subject to torture and ill-treatment again if forcibly returned to his home country," she told VOA’s Uzbek service. "He should be able to work as a journalist freely, safely, and without fear of reprisal.”

Shohruh Saipov, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh, said Abdullaev’s case is the latest indication that the country's human rights record should be called into question.

"Although Kyrgyzstan is known as the island of democracy in Central Asia, in recent years it has officially extradited people seeking refuge in its territory in order to improve relations with neighboring countries and not to undermine the developing cooperation, i.e., to avoid conflicts with neighbors," he said, citing examples such as the 2019 arrest and extradition of Kazakh opposition activist Murat Tungishbayev.

"International human rights conventions concerning journalists have been ratified by Bishkek," Saipov added. "If extradited to Uzbekistan, Abdullaev could face torture and long prison terms under an unfair judiciary. Therefore, it would be right for Kyrgyzstan to keep the Uzbek journalist on its territory or deport him to a third country."

This story originated in VOA's Uzbek service.