– This report was originally published by Freedom House. –
On January 22, 2007, Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek journalist, human rights activist, and mother of a two-year-old son, was arrested by Uzbek authorities. She was returning to her country from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
May 8 — After a short trial in a Tashkent court of appeals, during which Umida was obliged to publicly plead guilty to an illegal border crossing and distributing anti-government publications, the court gave her a seven-year suspended sentence with three years’ probation, and released her from custody.
April 30, 2007 — Umida’s trial restarted again in the morning, but neither her family nor local civil society groups were informed of the trial in time, though they were allowed to come in late. Umida pleaded guilty of illegal border crossing but said she was innocent of the other two charges. No new charges were brought against her. She was convicted of seven years in prison and will appeal the sentence.
April 19, 2007 — Umida’s trial began on the 19th, but was quickly adjourned until an unspecified date. No more information is available regarding her detention and trial.
April 16, 2007 — Organizations and human rights activists in Uzbekistan reported that Umida’s trial would begin Thursday, April 19, 2007, in Sergeli District Court in Tashkent. Most Uzbek human rights defenders have little faith that the court, notorious for its corruption and lack of independence from the executive branch, will acquit Umida. However, they have stressed the need for western embassies to dispatch monitors to the trial to serve as witnesses to the event, and for independent journalists in Uzbekistan to try to cover the hearings.
April 9, 2007 — The Uzbek prosecutor’s office charged Umida with one more offense — “creating or distributing materials threatening public security and order using financial resources provided by religious organizations, foreign governments, organizations and citizens,” (Article 244-1 of the Uzbek criminal code). Deemed one of the most serious crimes in Uzbekistan, Article 244-1 carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison.
A member of Veritas, a popular new Uzbek human rights group, Umida also worked as a translator for Human Rights Watch and is a former Freedom House employee. In late December 2006, she was detained by the police upon her return from an OSCE conference in Kyrgyzstan, and her laptop, which may have contained human rights-related documents, was confiscated. As many standard human rights documents are deemed illegal by the Uzbek government, Umida left Uzbekistan for neighboring Kyrgyzstan to avoid possible arrest. However, she returned in mid-January to rejoin her family after assurances from her lawyer that no charges had been raised against her. Instead, she was arrested on charges of smuggling extremist literature and illegally crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan.
For her conviction that humans have the right to live free of torture and arbitrary arrest, Umida now sits in detention in Tashtyurma, Tashkent’s pre-trial detention facility, notorious for its ill-treatment and torture of detainees, and faces charges that could land her up to 20 years in prison.
She has had very limited access to her family. According to her family, she is in decent physical form, though demoralized by the idea that she might not see her son for many years. The family members who visited Umida reported that the main reason she was allowed some access to outsiders was the result of international outcry.
Umida’s arrest is just one of the latest examples of the Uzbek government’s recently begun campaign to silence journalists and activists. In the past few months, the operation has resulted in the imprisonment of at least three journalists, several criminal cases launched against independent reporters, and the jailing of nearly two dozen human rights defenders.
Freedom House and other organizations are struggling to increase awareness in the U.S., Europe, and Uzbekistan of Umida’s plight.
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