In a recent opinion, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the immediate release of Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy, concluding that “the basis for the arrest and subsequent detention of Mr. Sattoriy was in fact his exercise of freedom of expression.”
Sattoriy was convinced on extortion and libel charges in May 2021 and given a sentence of 6.5 years. The accusations against Sattoriy, who was known for covering local corruption, were that he blackmailed and slandered several subjects of his reporting. The Working Group issued its opinion in response to a petition alleging Sattoriy was a victim of arbitrary detention.
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion included an overview of Sattoriy’s case provided by the petition’s source, which details the charges against him, including four counts of extortion and one for slander.
The trouble started with a phone. In December 2020, Sattoriy went to the Sherabad District Market to film, part of a report he was working on. Security officers, he said and another blogger who testified at his trial confirmed, stopped him from filming and as a result of their intervention damaged his coat and phone. Sattoriy then demanded that the market’s administrators, for whom the security officers worked, replace his damaged phone.
The prosecution in his case construed this incident as extortion, despite the fact that two witnesses backed up Sattoriy’s version of events.
Another of the extortion charges related to two apartments that were transferred into Sattoriy’s possession as compensation for the demolition, in 2018, of two homes belonging to his family in Termez. In February 2020, the director of the construction firm appealed to the authorities, demanding the apartments be returned, as the city administration had not paid what it previously agreed to pay for them.
The prosecution characterized this incident quite differently, alleging that Sattoriy tried to extort the director of the construction firm and the Termez city mayor, threatening to release negative reports about the new apartment building if they did not sell him two apartments at below-market rates.
Sattoriy was also charged with slander. In June 2020, he’d reported allegations made by a doctor at the Republican Scientific Medical Center for Oncology and Radiology that a human resource specialist was misappropriating wages by claiming ghost employees and collecting their pay. His report included supporting financial documentation. At trial, the human resource specialist reportedly could not answer questions about which statements were slanderous.
The petition argued that Sattoriy’s imprisonment is arbitrary, stating that there is lack of legal basis for his detention (category I), his detention is directly related to his exercise of his fundamental rights (category II), and that the case against him included violations of due process and fair trial rights (category III).
The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion noted that although the Working Group had “transmitted to the Government of Uzbekistan a communication concerning Mr. Otabek Sattoriy,” Tashkent had not replied. The Working Group noted that “the burden of proof should be understood to rest upon the Government if it wishes to refute the allegations.” In light of the Uzbek government’s non-response, the Working Group issued its opinion based on the petition’s details.
In its opinion, the Working Group agreed with the petition that Sattoriy’s detention was arbitrary, stating that there was no legal basis for his detention given that he was arrested without a warrant being issued in what appeared to be a set-up: “In the present case, the arrest apparently took place immediately following Mr. Sattoriy meeting with the director of the market who gave him a phone that became the basis for an accusation of extortion. However, it appears that the director of the market acted following instruction of the police officers and in coordination with them.”
The Working Group also agreed that Sattoriy’s detention resulted from the exercise of his right to expression. The opinion found fault with the government’s charges of slander, commenting that although unfounded slander can be “dramatically damaging,” in this case Sattoriy’s “report was based on his interview with an alleged victim’s employee and supported by documents.” Even if the report was exaggerated, the Working Group writes, “a criminal conviction would amount to a disproportionate interference with the freedom of expression enshrined in article 19 of the Covenant and will have a chilling effect on journalists and bloggers, to the detriment of free democratic society.”
While the Working Group did not determine that Sattoriy’s rights to due process and a fair trial were violated, citing a lack of specific detail in the petition on those matters, it expanded its opinion to cover category V, which relates to violations of international law for a variety of reasons, including discrimination based on political opinion. The Working Group noted that Sattoriy’s case “is similar to other cases of human rights defenders and journalists in Uzbekistan, examined by it” and that “there is a distinct pattern in the attitude of the authorities towards investigative journalists that constitutes a discrimination on the basis of political or other opinion…”
Ultimately, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calls for Sattoriy’s immediate release.
That seems unlikely, however. The Uzbek government’s apparent non-engagement with the process is a strong indicator that it won’t engage with the Working Group’s opinion either.
Another indicator is the continued pattern of arrests of journalists and bloggers under extortion and slander charges. Last month, seven journalists working for Human.uz were arrested, with the authorities alleging they were connected to what Eurasianet characterized as “gossipy Telegram channels.” It’s unclear what the specific charges are. And then last week another “citizen journalist,” Abdukadyr Muminov, was arrested on blackmail and extortion charges that mirror those levied against Sattoriy, with the authorities alleging he approached business owners threatening to publish damaging material if they did not pay up.