Tashkent city court on May 7 released jailed Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev, 44, in a surprising turn of events. However, Abdullayev was still found guilty, but only on the milder charge of using the media to call for an unconstitutional removal of the government, instead of on the court’s previous charge of a “conspiracy to overthrow the government”.
The journalist was ordered to pay 20% of his monthly salary to the government and was set free. The case has been described by human rights campaigners as a test of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s commitment to his promised liberal reforms.
Abdullayev is best known under the pen name Usman Haknazarov for his stories criticising the Uzbek government published on an opposition-run website. He was arrested in September 2017. Anti-government conspiracy charges are not an uncommon excuse used by autocratic regimes in Central Asia to clamp down on freedom of speech.
The court also ordered an investigation into allegations by Abdullayev’s lawyer that the journalist was subject to torture while in custody. Last year, the Uzbek president signed into law a decree that made any evidence obtained under torture inadmissible in court.
"I am extremely glad that I have come out of there alive," Abdullayev said after the court’s decision. "I thank Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the court."
Amnesty International said the ruling was "a glimmer of hope for the country's beleaguered journalists," and urged further steps to guarantee freedom of speech in the most populous Central Asian nation.
"Bobomurod Abdullaev has already paid a terrible price for his independent journalism, spending seven months in Uzbekistan's most notorious detention centre where he was allegedly tortured to confess to trumped-up charges," said Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty's deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in a May 7 statement.
Abdullayev was the first leading dissident to go on trial since Mirziyoyev came to power in late 2016 - Mirziyoyev’s record so far includes the mass-pardoning of 2,700 convicts imprisoned for dissent as well as releasing multiple journalists critical of his predecessor Karimov’s regime.
Most of Abdullayev’s articles in the last 14 years have targeted the previous regime and some of his work even appeared to implicitly side with Mirziyoyev when discussing the power struggle between Mirziyoyev and veteran ex-security services head Rustam Inoyatov.
Since taking office, the Uzbek president has pledged to liberalise Uzbekistan. Improvements in media and freedom for activist groups were noted during the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s historic visit to the country.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed cautious optimism about human rights-related developments in Uzbekistan. It has also recently reopened its office in the country.