Two weeks after being detained in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev was extradited to Uzbekistan over the weekend. The arrest and extradition have raised concerns among regional observers about backsliding on human rights progress in Uzbekistan and arguably Kyrgyzstan, too. Without a doubt, Abdullaev’s case will be closely followed not only for what happens to Abdullaev himself but what the case tells us about the space in Uzbekistan for free speech.
In 2018, Abdullaev was convicted in Uzbekistan for producing “anti-government propaganda” but was cleared of more serious charges of conspiring against the state. His release was celebrated as a mark of progress out of the dark days of Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan. In the years since, Uzbek President Shakvat Mirizyoyev has made repeated statements about the importance of the media.
Skip forward to 2020. As I covered previously, Abdullaev was detained in Kyrgyzstan on August 9. He’d traveled to Kyrgyzstan in February from Europe for a four-month program at the American University of Central Asia. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent halting of most international travel kept Abdullaev in Kyrgyzstan. According to early reports, Abdullaev and his lawyers believed his arrest — on the request of Uzbek authorities — stemmed from the belief that he was the person behind a Telegram persona publishing statements critical of the Uzbek government.
On Telegram, a messaging app that is incredibly popular in Uzbekistan, a user under the name Qora Mergan (“Black Shooter”) has been publishing articles critical of the Ubzek government since at least late June. The channel has remained active since Abdullaev’s arrest earlier this month. The same name has reportedly posted articles via Facebook and another website.
After arriving in Uzbekistan on August 22, Abdullaev was released after questioning by the Security Committee. Abdullaev’s lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, said his client was released to his sister’s house but has been barred from traveling pending a full investigation.
Upon his release, Abdullaev thanked President Mirziyoyev.
The release relieves some concerns regarding the possibility of torture in custody, to which Abdullaev says he was subjected in 2018. But the articles under which he is reportedly under investigation could result in a 20 year sentence.
There are several issues at hand.
First, the charges against Abdullaev are reportedly under under Articles 158 and 159, offenses against the president and anti-constitutional activities. Article 158, for example, spans everything from actual assassination attempts to insulting the president. The latter end of that spectrum treads into territory heavily criticized by free speech advocates for its flexibility (and thus easy to abuse). Rights advocates, like Muzaffar Suleymanov, pointed out on Twitter that even if Abdullaev had written the critical posts (he denies doing so), “critical commentary is not a criminal offense.”
Since coming to power, Mirziyoyev has pushed ahead with a reform program that first and foremost focused on economics and regional relations. The state unblocked a host of websites in a bid for reform in the speech realm and in his most recent Constitution Day speech, in December, the president said “[i]n order to strengthen openness and transparency, we must fully implement the constitutional rules on freedom of speech, receiving and spreading information.” But in practice, there continues to be self-censorship on the part of Uzbek media and pressure put on journalists for sharing articles about, let alone reporting on, sensitive topics.
Second, the specifics of what Abdullaev is actually accused of have not been made clear, which is problematic. According to Voice of America, Abdullaev’s lawyer, Mayorov, said his client had to sign a non-disclosure agreement — meaning he can’t discuss the charges against him. That will make rousing support more difficult. We’re dealing with hearsay, rumors and assumptions spread by anonymous individuals online, but which are evidently having an influence on the security services in Uzbekistan. Uzbek officials remain tight-lipped about the case, not helping clarify the situation.
Finally, Kyrgyzstan trod into questionable territory in extraditing Abdullaev. While Kyrgyz authorities stated that they proceeded in accordance with the law, on August 10, according to a statement put out by a group of human rights organizations, Abdullaev had applied for refugee status in Kyrgyzstan. Per that statement’s accounting of the timeline of events, Abdullaev had grown increasingly concerned that the Uzkek authorities would seek to detain him after “several anonymous persons had posted online accusing him of being the author of the above mentioned critical anonymous publications.” On July 26, Abdullaev specifically took to YouTube to deny the claims that he was Qora Mergan. In quickly extraditing Abdullaev, Kyrgyz authorities have washed their hands of the issue and done what their larger neighbor requested, but undercut their own claims to respect free speech.
On August 13, U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan Daniel Rosenblum tweeted about the case, stating “[t]he Governments of both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan should respect Mr. Abdullayev’s freedom of movement and allow him to depart the Kyrgyz Republic to his destination of choice.”
That clearly did not happen. The next moves are for the Uzbek state to make and many will be watching.