International PEN statement on the recent events in Uzbekistan
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
President Islam Abdigamoevich Karimov
Republic of Uzbekistan
Fax: 998 71 139 5625
International PEN wishes to bring to your attention the following statement on recent events. Your comments on this would be most welcome.
International PEN, the world association of writers, is alarmed by recent days’ events in Uzbekistan and calls for a lifting of the clamp down on the media reporting from cities affected by unrest, and urges that there be no further killings. It fears for the welfare of writers and journalists who are imprisoned in Uzbekistan and reiterates calls that they be freed.
The killings of protestors in recent days in Andijon, Uzbekistan are cause for acute concern to International PEN. The Uzbek authorities have claimed that the demonstrations were instigated by Islamic extremists. A clampdown on the press has made impossible any independent verification of reports that hundreds of people have been killed, or access to information as to how the violence erupted. What is known is that protests about the trial against 23 members of the Akramiya group, had started in February and that, until Friday, there had been no violent incidents.
The country that has long been a high priority to International PEN for its suppression of free expression and appalling human rights record. Muslims who do not follow the government line find themselves accused of extremism and imprisoned. The recent arrest of a young journalist, Sobirjon Yakubov, serves to illustrate these concerns. An award winning young journalist, Yakubov had recently visited Saudi Arabia to carry out a ‘hadj’ (pilgrimage) to Mecca. On his return he wrote a series of articles for the state run Hurriyat (Freedom) newspaper about this experience. On 11 April he found himself arrested on accusation of belonging to an “extremist” organisation and is currently held Tashkent Prison. Yakubov’s colleagues are shocked by the charges against Yakubov, pointing out that he had written on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. They believe that this promising young journalist is in fact being held because of another article in which he reflected on the “velvet revolutions” of Georgia, Ukraine and neighbouring Kyrgystan, and suggested that similar events could take place in Uzbekistan.
Yakubov joins two other Muslim journalists in prison. Gayrat Mehliboev and Khayrullah Ernazarov, arrested in 2002 and 2003 respectively, are both serving seven year sentences held for their alleged allegiance to the Hizb ut-Tahir, an extremist Islamic movement. However observers point out that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that either were affiliated to the organisation. In the case of Ernazarov, it has been reported that prosecution witnesses claimed that they did not recognise him as a member of the group, and at least on other later claimed that he had provided testimony under torture.
Accusations of terrorism have been used as a means of imprisoning members of the banned Erk opposition party. Its leader, Muhamed Salih, also a writer, fled the country in the mid 1990s. Several members of the party were subsequently arrested and remain in prison. Among them is the eminent author Mamadali Makhmudov. He and two other journalists, Muhammad Bekzhon and Yusif Ruzimuradov, are serving up to 15 year sentences for “threatening the constitutional order”. Originally accused of connections with bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in February1999, there was no apparent evidence to connect them with these events, which some commentators go as far as to suggest were carried by government agents provocateurs.
In 2003, PEN published its report Anti-terrorism, writers and freedom of expression in which Uzbekistan was highlighted as a particular concern as a state that had long labelled its independent Muslim community as extremists. It reports that pressure on this community grew following the September 11 2001 attacks, with increased penalties for those follower of imams who are out of favour with the state, or who had distributed unauthorised materials. Recent days’ events serve to heighten these concerns.
Joanne Leedom Ackerman
Chair, Writers in Prison Committee