Salijon Abdurakhmanov, one of Uzbekistan’s most prominent imprisoned journalists, turned 64 today–his sixth birthday spent behind prison walls because of his independent reporting in one of the world’s most repressive states. Abdurakhmanov’s case is a constant reminder of Uzbekistan’s abysmal record on free press and fair trial rights. If the United States genuinely hopes to bolster such values abroad, especially in places where they are most at risk, it must renew its efforts to promote respect for fundamental rights in Uzbekistan and seize every opportunity to press for the release of the country’s prisoners of conscience.
Uzbekistan has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Freedom House has consistently described Uzbekistan as “Not Free,” giving its worst ranking for freedom, civil liberties and political rights in Uzbekistan. This year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan 166th out of 180, worse than Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Belarus. According to the State Department, police and security services subjected journalists to arrest, harassment, intimidation and violence. Human Rights Watch similarly described Uzbekistan as a place where torture “plagues” detention facilities, and is used routinely to extract confessions.
Abdurakhmanov was an important voice in this restrictive environment. He reported from Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the northwestern Uzbekistan, infamous for its rapidly drying Aral Sea and torture-ridden Jaslyk prison. Abdurakhmanov’s reporting covered sensitive issues in the region, such as torture, forced labor, environmental problems, and corruption. He was also the main source of information in Karakalpakstan for U.S.-funded news sources like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. To punish him for this reporting, the Uzbek government sentenced him to 10 years in prison on fabricated drug charges after a trial that lacked basic due process protections—a story very typical in Uzbekistan.
Not content to merely imprison Abdurakhmanov, the Uzbek authorities have consistently tried to limit his communication with the outside world. In 2012, prison authorities hid Abdurakhmanov from a delegation of the International Committee for the Red Cross. The government simply brought a different inmate to the visiting room, falsely claiming that he was Abdurakhmanov. Then just a few weeks ago, prison authorities prevented Abdurakhmanov’s meeting with his son Davron Abdurakhmanov, claiming that the phones in the visiting room were broken.
Last June, twelve United States senators sent a letter to the Uzbek President Islam Karimov raising concerns for Abdurakhmanov’s well-being and urging his immediate and unconditional release. Although his case has been consistently raised over the past years through these kinds of initiatives, the Uzbek government has refused to release Abdurakhmanov and his fellow prisoners of conscience. Even as Uzbekistan plays a greater role in international anti-terror efforts alongside countries like the United States, it ignores calls that it respect the human rights of its citizens.
Earlier this month, in his statement to commemorate World Press Freedom Day, Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that independent journalists were in danger and that he admired their courage to “risk their lives to tell the stories the world need[ed] to hear.” If the United States is truly committed to free press, it must renew its efforts to strengthen fundamental rights and save journalists like Abdurahmanov from the prisons of dictatorial regimes—especially where such regimes coordinate closely with Washington on important security priorities.