WASHINGTON -- A court in Uzbekistan this week upheld a decision to sentence the brother of an RFE/RL journalist to eight years in prison on drug-related charges, the latest in a series of cases that appear to target family members in retaliation for their relatives’ reporting.
The Ferghana appeals court, in the country’s southern Ferghana Valley, rejected Aziz Yusupov’s appeal on September 20 in a session in which no witnesses were present and, according to his mother, took 15 minutes. No witnesses testified in the original hearing in August, nor was any evidence brought against Yusupov to corroborate the charges.
Drug charges are frequently brought against independent journalists, human rights defenders, and other government critics in Uzbekistan.
Noting that the decision comes only two weeks after the appointment of interim president Shavkat Mirziyaev, following the death of long-serving leader Islam Karimov, RFE/RL President Thomas Kent said, “Uzbekistan’s new leaders should know that RFE/RL vigorously condemns any attack on the family members of our journalists, and any attempt to intimidate or silence us.”
In a statement issued following Yusupov’s original conviction, the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders called the charge “trumped-up,” characterizing it as an effort by authorities to continue “stepping up their persecution of the country’s few remaining independent journalists.”
Other members of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service and their relatives have been subject to attempts at intimidation recently. One employee’s apartment in Tashkent was seized by agents with Uzbekistan’s National Security Service in August. Another employee was warned this spring that her brother would suffer if she continued working for RFE/RL. Authorities have interrogated the family members of RFE/RL employees about their relatives’ journalistic work, and in several cases have denied their requests for exit visas to leave the country.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Radio Ozodlik, operates from Prague, having been forced to close its bureau in Tashkent in 2005 following that year's massacre in the eastern city of Andijon. Ozodlik relies on constant innovation and a wide network of local sources to report news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most closed societies. Despite government efforts to block access, the Service’s website averages more than 2 million visits per month; during the week that President Karimov died (August 28-September 4), the website registered 6.5 million page views, while the Service reached over 5.1 million via social media platforms, and its videos were watched 5.5 million times on YouTube.