Uzbekistan’s secret police no longer have purview over the case of a prominent journalist abducted in 2017, reports suggest. The decision signals further division between President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the security services.
Rights activist Surat Ikramov says the case against journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev has been handed over to the country’s prosecution office. The journalist has since been granted the right to a lawyer, a right previously denied by the National Security Service (SNB).
The SNB, successor to the Soviet-era KGB, remains one of the most powerful agencies in the tightly controlled country. Activists hope the decision to remove the organization’s purview over Abdullayev’s case will create an opportunity for greater transparency and public scrutiny.
Last week, the journalist’s lawyer submitted a formal complaint to the SNB, accusing police of subjecting his client to “mental and physical torture.” The lawyer also says his client confessed to crimes he did not commit after being tortured.
The SNB officers responsible for the case were recently fired and may face prosecution themselves.
Abdullayev was detained in September last year and charged with inciting insurrection. In a public statement, the SNB accused the journalist of blogging under the pseudonym Usman Khaknazarov – a popular government critic.
The case also highlights the growing rift between Uzbekistan’s presidential administration and the secret police. Last week, Mirziyoyev gave a speech in Bukhara accusing the security services of carrying out atrocities.
“I even have photos showing torture,” Mirziyoyev was cited as saying by RFE/RL’s Uzbek service on February 16. “I know the names of the investigators who committed these atrocities.”
Since taking office, Mirziyoyev has been steadily undermining the SNB in order to bolster his own authority and pursue a reformist economic agenda. Last month, the president dismissed secret police Chief Rustam Inoyatov, one of the most influential figures in the country and a potential rival. In purging the elite, the president hopes to open Uzbekistan to foreign investment and kick-start the country’s fledgling economy.
In contrast to former hardline dictator Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, Mirziyoyev has also promised to improve human rights. Several prominent detainees have been released after being held for years. They include Muhammad Bekjanov, who had been the world’s longest-held journalist when released in February 2017 after 18 years in prison.
But critics say the reforms have brought little serious political change. While Tashkent has allowed news outlets such as the BBC to return, and several websites have been unblocked, many journalists continue to be detained.
Despite hopeful signs and improved rhetoric, Uzbekistan is still ranked 169th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index.