Journalist Held Incommunicado in Uzbekistan

Official refusal to disclose Sergei Naumov’s location raises fears of ill-treatment.

Journalist Held Incommunicado in Uzbekistan

Official refusal to disclose Sergei Naumov’s location raises fears of ill-treatment.

Sergei Naumov. (Photo: IWPR)
Sergei Naumov. (Photo: IWPR)
Wednesday, 25 September, 2013

Human rights groups are seriously concerned for the wellbeing of Sergei Naumov, a journalist held incommunicado by police in northwest Uzbekistan since September 21.

Naumov, who is 50, has contributed material to IWPR, the Russia-based news site, the Politzhurnal magazine in Moscow, and a state-approved environmental affairs journal in Uzbekistan.

When he was taken to a local police station after being picked up at his home in Urgench, he managed to call a colleague before his phone was taken away, but there has been no contact since.

A lawyer engaged to defend him flew into Urgench on September 24 and was able to discover from unofficials sources that Naumov was being held in a pre-trial detention centre in the town. He was not able to see him, but expected to get access the following day. That did not happen. As of September 25, police were still denying that they had Naumov in custody. At the pre-trial detention facility, officers said that the head was absent, that there was no Naumov on the list of detainees, and that the lawyer could not come in.

The lawyer obtained a copy of a court order indicating that Naumov had appeared before a judge on September 21, without the legal representation to which he was entitled. He was sentenced to 12 days in prison for "hooliganism" (disorderly conduct) for allegedly pushing and insulting a woman in the street. This counts as an administrative offence, not a criminal act. At the court hearing, Naumov denied the allegations.  

The whole process was remarkably quick. The alleged incident took place at four in the afternoon on a Saturday, and Naumov was arrested, charged, brought to court, tried and sentenced within a couple of hours.

The Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, based in France, has followed the case closely and issued a statement saying that "all the signs are that this judicial process against Sergei Naumov is politically motivated and a farce. His rights to a defence have been breached".

The OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said she had "written to the Uzbek authorities asking them to provide information on the whereabouts of Naumov and the circumstances of his disappearance,“ she said. Uzbekistan is an OSCE member state.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia are especially alarmed that the law-enforcement agencies appear to have hidden Naumov away. Past experience in Uzbekistan shows that this is standard practice when the authorities want to torture suspects into signing incriminating confessions, so that the trial process has a foregone conclusion.

“The use of incommunicado detention in Uzbekistan has been reported on numerous occasions,” an “urgent action” statement from Amnesty said. “Any period of incommunicado detention puts detainees at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment.”

Steve Swerdlow, who is Central Asia researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told IWPR, “We must respond to such violations [of detention laws] immediately. Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned for the fate of journalist Sergei Naumov. “We know that the most difficult phase of such arrests is the first few hours in detention, when the investigative agencies use torture.

"We call on the authorities to immediately identify Sergei Naumov’s location, provide him with a lawyer, and grant him his right to a phone call and to an objective investigation into this dubious accusation.”

Swerdlow was referring to earlier reports that Naumov was accused of taking a gold chain from a woman. 

The risk now is that the authorities will use the 12-day spell in detention stemming from the "hooliganism" charge to build a more serious criminal case against Naumov. His lawyer therefore plans to appeal against the administrative penalty rather than wait out the period.

It is common for the authorities to use criminal charges to discredit dissidents and independent journalists, and to coerce “plaintiffs” and “witnesses” into giving evidence. (See, for example, Uzbek Police Accused of Rent-a-Mob Tactics.) 

An anonymous source in the Urgench police told IWPR that Naumov's arrest was “ordered by Tashkent".

Naumov has annoyed the Uzbek authorities by shedding light on environmental issues and human rights abuses, including the use of forced labour in the cotton industry, in what is otherwise a little-reported part of the country.

“He has been threatened by Uzbek law-enforcement officers on several occasions,” Nadezhda Ataeva, head of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, told IWPR. “These threats have been repeated anonymously by phone and on the internet. Sergei Naumov is a law-abiding person who enjoys a great deal of public trust.”

In late August, police stopped a vehicle Naumov was travelling in and questioned him for two hours. He was returning from Nukus, 130 kilometres north of Urgench, after looking into a case where people were protesting because their housing had been demolished and they were angry at the low level of compensation they were offered.

Swerdlow sees Naumov’s detention as part of a rising trend of assaults on the rights of human rights defenders and independent journalists.

“These cases confirm yet again that Washington, London and the European Union need to change their approach to dealing with Tashkent,” he said. “The dialogue they are pursuing with the authorities is having no effect.”

Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR senior editor for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, based in Bishkek.

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