A court in Uzbekistan has convicted an Uzbek journalist, who reports for Voice of America, of three press-related crimes, fined him about $10,000, and then released him.
Abdulmalik Bobaev, a journalist who has covered Uzbekistan for the last five years and reports for VOA, was convicted in a Tashkent court Friday of slander, insult and publishing information harmful to the public peace. Bobaev said he is considering an appeal. He was cleared of an illegal border crossing charge.
The charges could have earned the reporter eight years in jail. But the judge fined Bobaev and freed him. Reached by cellphone after the decision, Bobaev said he was adjusting to life without the threat of prison.
When he went to court Friday morning, he said his lawyer told him to be ready for anything.
VOA Director Danforth W. Austin said in a statement: "We are reviewing the decision by the Uzbek court. We are pleased that Mr. Boboev wasn't sentenced to jail. However, we remain concerned that his work as a journalist has resulted in a substantial fine."
Over the last two years, Uzbekistan has jailed eight reporters. On Wednesday, an Uzbek court convicted Vladimir Berezovsky, a Russian news website editor, of defamation charges. But, the presiding judge freed him under an amnesty program. Berezovsky, editor of the vesti.uz website on Uzbekistan, pleaded not guilty and plans to appeal the verdict.
Bobaev's lawyer, Sergey Mayorov, said his client is mulling an appeal. But he said he was relieved that the worst predictions in the case did not become reality.
Both cases drew international attention. Press freedom groups in New York and Paris sharply criticized Uzbekistan for putting the reporters on trial.
Surat Ikramov is a member of a small group of human rights activists who try to defend press freedoms in Uzbekistan, a nation ruled by one of the most authoritarian governments in Central Asia.
Ikramov said he thought that international pressure was directly responsible for the light treatment given two reporters this week.
The American embassy in Tashkent raised the Bobaev case with high level Uzbek officials and then sent American diplomats to observe the trial.
After the judge's decision Friday, the embassy released this statement: "We are relieved that the court has released journalist Abdulmalik Bobaev without a prison sentence. However, the Embassy remains concerned about the implications of this case for the state of media freedom in Uzbekistan."
Press freedom experts say that the eight journalists in Uzbek jails serve as warnings to journalists across this land of 30 million people.