Crossroads Asia | Diplomacy | Central Asia

Uzbek Journalist Detained in Kyrgyzstan at Tashkent’s Request

In 2018, Bobomurod Abdullaev walked out of jail in Uzbekistan after a surprising conclusion to a case levied against him by the state. New charges could mark a step backward.

Catherine Putz
Uzbek Journalist Detained in Kyrgyzstan at Tashkent’s Request
Credit: Catherine Putz

On the evening of August 9, Bobomurod Abdullaev, an Uzbek journalist, was detained by the Kyrgyz state security service at a cafe in Bishkek. A court in Bishkek ordered the next day that Abdullaev be held by the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (UKMK or GKNB) until September 8. Abdullaev’s arrest, Kyrgyz authorities say, was upon request from Uzbekistan and Abdullaev could face extradition to Tashkent.

This is not Abdullaev’s first brush with the law, but the circumstances are murky. The arrest has drawn criticism from Kyrgyz activists, who believe the arrest chips away further at the state’s democratic veneer, its image as an “island of democracy” in Central Asia.

Abdullaev, who reportedly had been living as a temporary resident in a European country, arrived in Kyrgyzstan in February 2020 to attend a four-month program at the American University of Central Asia. By the time the program ended, however, flights to Europe from Central Asia had been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported that Abdullaev told reporters outside the court that the allegations levied against him are that he is the person behind a series of articles posted to Facebook and Telegram under the pseudonym “Qora Mergan” (“Black Shooter”). Ozodlik pointed out that on August 9 and 10 — the day Abdullaev was arrested and the day of his court hearing — a Telegram channel published new posts signed by the Qora Mergan name. Qora Mergan, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported, has a Telegram following of 2,700 and is known for criticizing Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

On July 26, Abdullaev had taken to YouTube to deny rumors circulating among Uzbek bloggers that he was behind the Qora Mergan posts. 

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According to 24.kg, Abdullaev has been accused by Uzbek authorities under Articles 158 and 159, offenses against the president and anti-constitutional activities. Article 158 spans everything from actual assassination attempts to insulting the president. 

In 2018, Abdullaev was found guilty under Article 159 but was released from detention. As I wrote at the time:

The charge against Abdullaev, who was accused of writing inflammatory articles under the byline Usman Haqnazarov, in particular was reclassified from “conspiracy to seize power or overthrow the constitutional order” to a lesser charge of making appeals for unconstitutional change of the government. The sentence for Abdullaev was set at three years of “correctional labor” rather than five years of imprisonment the prosecution was seeking. He was credited with time served, leaving about a year of community service remaining.

The case was particularly interesting because the judge reportedly criticized the State Security Service for making mistakes and ordered an investigation. It’s unclear if that investigation ever happened.

Regarding the present predicament, Abdullaev told reporters that a court in Tashkent had tried him in absentia on July 23. Abdullaev’s lawyer in Tashkent, however, had earlier said that his inquiries to the Uzbek security services regarding new charges against the journalist were met with denials. The lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, issued additional requests for information on August 10.

Abdullaev’s 2018 ordeal was closely followed by free media advocates around the world an his release was hailed as a moment of progress. The obvious question is whether Kyrgyzstan will extradite Abdullaev to Uzbekistan. It seems likely that Bishkek will, given improved relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over the past few years and Kyrgyzstan’s own autocratic turn. The next question is more important: After Bishkek sends Abdullaev back to Tashkent, what then?

After his release in early 2018, Abdullaev told reporters, “I am extremely glad that I have come out of there alive… I thank Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the court.” At the time, I concluded that the surprising result of Abdullaev’s trial — conviction on a lesser charge and release with the intent to investigate state abuses — was a positive step for the Mirziyoyev regime, intent on a mission of reform. I closed the piece with a necessary hedge: “There’s always the chance of backsliding, but for now forward movement must be celebrated.”

This is what backsliding looks like.