New case of harassment of independent Uzbek journalist

Brussels, The Hague 10 April 2012. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) deplore the conviction of Uzbek journalist Elena Bondar on spurious charges of promoting national hatred as an attempt to intimidate and punish her for her independent journalism work. Her conviction yet again demonstrates the vulnerability of independent journalists in Uzbekistan.

As reported by the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, an IPHR-NHC partner organization, freelance journalist Elena Bondar was brought to trial in Tashkent on 6 April 2012. A local court found her guilty under article 184-3 of Uzbekistan’s Administrative Code, which prohibits “preparing, storing and disseminating material that promotes national, racial, ethnic or religious hatred,” and fined her 6.9 million soms (close to $4000 according to the unofficial exchange rate).

The case against Bondar was initiated on the basis of a complaint from a consulting company called IQ Land Servis, which presents itself as an intermediary between Russia’s Tyumen State University (TSU) and Uzbek students enrolled for distance studies at this university. Bondar was accused of circulating appeals containing false accusations regarding TSU’s operations in Uzbekistan in the name of company manager Olga Starkova, as well as of threatening to write an article with similar content. The appeals in question were sent to journalists and civil society activists from a hacked Russian email account last fall and claimed, among others, that the Uzbek authorities plan to close down TSU’s program in Uzbekistan, thereby depriving Russian-speakers of the opportunity to obtain education in their native language. In her capacity as a freelance journalist, Bondar was asked by the independent fergananews.com site to investigate the issue, and visited the office of IQ land Servis to this end. However, as she did not find the allegations made in the appeals to be substantiated, she dropped the issue without writing anything about it.

According to Bondar’s lawyer, during the trial no evidence was presented to support the charges against her. Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, was denied access to monitor the trial.

Bondar has already previously faced problems. When returning from a training in Kyrgyzstan in August 2011, she was briefly detained at Tashkent airport and CDs, videos and flash-drives containing material related to her work were seized from her on the pretext that they were “undeclared” goods and had to be examined for possible ”extremist” content. Later she was given a warning.

In another recent case, on 26 March 2012, a Tashkent court convicted investigative journalist Viktor Krymzalov of slander and insult (under articles 40 and 41 of the Administrative Code) and fined him a sum equivalent to about $1350 (according to the unofficial exhange rate). The charges against him concerned an online article about a pensioner, who was forcefully evicted from his home following a legal dispute with distant relatives. Krymzalov was found guilty although he denies writing this article, and the court failed to prove that he did so.

A number of independent journalists and human rights defenders remain imprisoned on politically motivated charges in the country.