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Campaigning Uzbek Reporter 'Framed'
A journalist from southern Uzbekistan is facing several years in prison on bribery and extortion charges, after falling foul of a powerful local official.
Lawyers acting for Majid Abduraimov, 57, claim their client was framed by the authorities, after writing a series of reports on corruption and abuse of power among high-ranking officials in the Boisun municipality, Surkhandarya region.
Independent journalists in Uzbekistan bold enough to criticise government officials and prominent businessmen are increasingly running the gauntlet of trumped up criminal charges and imprisonment.
Human rights activists claim five reporters are currently behind bars. None were prosecuted over their journalistic work.
On January 15, 2001, Abduraimov published an article in the newspaper "Novyi Vek" (New century) entitled "Getting Off Scot-free", which made several serious allegations against Nusrat Rajapov, head of a grain production company in the Boisun district.
In his article, Abduramov claimed Rajapov, a powerful local personality, terrorised the local community. He said several people witnessed him run over and kill a child last year.
Equally disturbing, however, were Adburaimov's claims that Rajapov's son Kamil together with some friends kidnapped and raped a 13-year-old boy in February 2000. The boy was allegedly grabbed and taken to a secluded spot outside town where he was beaten and sexually assaulted.
Adburaimov said the boy required hospital treatment after the attack - and that human rights activists cited his injuries as proof of the appalling nature of the assault.
The boy's parents approached Abduraimov's newspaper for help in trying to bring the alleged perpetrator to justice.
Khalida Shoimova, a human rights lawyer in Boisun municipality, says Rajapov made threatening calls to Abduraimov after his article came out.
He tried to sue Abduraimov for libel but the case was dropped after an investigation by the public prosecutor's office - a judicial authority which decides whether cases should go to court - corroborated facts in the article.
Abduraimov's supporters believe it was then that Rajapov decided to set the journalist up. According to Shoimova, various individuals began following Abduraimov offering him money.
On January 25 2001, Abduraimov asked the interior minisrty to protect him from the harassment. But the authorities did nothing.
"The whole town knew someone was trying to set Abduraimov up, that those people were trying to plant money on him so as to charge him with taking a bribe. Abduraimov knew it too," said Shoimova.
An eyewitness, Rashid Tashbaev, claims he saw a man drop a package into Abduraimov's car. The package, it was later revealed, contained $6,000 in cash.
"On March 10, I saw him [Abduraimov] standing next to his car talking to Shavkat Rakhmankulov, a petrol station operator, " Tashbaev recalled. "Suddenly, Rakhmankulov threw a bundle into the journalist's car.
"The police must have been waiting in the wings: they jumped out straight away. Abduraimov tried to argue, but they quickly took him away."
Abduraimov tried to appeal against his arrest and staged a seven-day hunger strike in March. But eventually he was charged with major bribery and extortion.
Rajapov has denied all of Adburaimov's accusations. He claims the article was written after the journalist threatened to smear him unless he was given money. "Everything written in his article is a lie," he said.
According to Rajapov, money was not placed in Abduraimov's car but actually handed over to him. "Adburaimov took all the money and checked the amount," he continued. But he failed to explain why he agreed to hand over money after the article had been published.
In Uzbekistan, journalists are subjected to rigorous censorship. Criticism rarely makes it into print, especially if it focuses on senior officials and leading businessmen.
Those brave enough to challenge the rich and powerful, or to expose their crimes, risk heavy fines and even imprisonment. Government, police and the courts conspire to neutralise anyone perceived as a threat.
Abduraimov's lawyers say his case is typical of modern-day Uzbekistan. With the legal system under control of those who have power and money, journalists face the constant threat of being persecuted for simply doing their job.
Aziza Umarova is a pseudonym of a journalist in Uzbekistan
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