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Prominent Uzbek Journalist Faces Prosecution

Rights campaigners in Uzbekistan say the authorities are prosecuting a fiercely outspoken journalist in an attempt to silence the independent media.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

One of the best-known independent journalists in Uzbekistan is to be interrogated by the state prosecutor's office early next week in connection with claims that he forged his application for membership of an elite organisation in the early Nineties.


The public prosecutor claims Shukhrat Babadjanov forged a letter by the famous Uzbek painter, Ruzi Chariev, recommending the journalist for membership of the prestigious Union of Artists of Uzbekistan in 1991.


The criminal investigation into the affair, which began at the end of July, has been condemned by the non-government press and human rights activists, who say it represents an attempt by the authorities to silence the independent media.


Babadjanov, head of a local television station and a respected painter, admits that he wrote the application to the artists' union, but claims Chariev signed it. "Ruzi Chariev couldn't write properly in Uzbek. That's why he told me - 'write it yourself and I will sign it,'" said Babadjanov.


"I have ample proof that I did not falsify Chariev's signature - the accusations are groundless. It looks like investigators forced him to say that his signature was forged. They tried to do the same thing to another person who endorsed my recommendation, but he refused."


Babadjanov was expelled from the artists' union at the end of May, for alleged non-payment of membership fees, failure to turn up for exhibitions and indecent behaviour.


The journalist suspects he will be arrested following his interrogation by the state prosecutor next Monday, August 6. He fears he may face the same fate as the Uigur writer Emil Usman who died in questionable circumstances shortly after being detained earlier this year. He had been expelled from the artists' union a month before his detention.


Analysts believe Babadjanov is being punished for his journalistic work. He is the director of the private Urgench-based private television company ALC TV, which was closed down two years ago and has been pressuring the government to be allowed back on air ever since.


It's thought the government shut down the station in autumn 1999 - shortly before the start of parliamentary and presidential elections - because of its fiercely independent editorial policy. The station collaborated with international media, such as Internews, rebroadcasting programmes which aired issues the authorities felt uneasy about.


Babadjanov repeatedly took legal action to reopen ALC, without success. At the end of June, the authorities finally refused to renew the station's licence. Throughout his single-handed campaign to get the station back on air, Babadjanov highlighted the plight of ALC to draw public attention to the government's bid to pressure the independent media.


His actions provoked criticism from the authorities and pro-regime journalists, who felt he was undermining the country's reputation abroad. Among independent-minded people, he became the symbol of the struggle for freedom of speech in Uzbekistan.


Independent journalists have been shocked by the authorities' decision to bring criminal charges against someone as well known as Babadjanov.


The chairman of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, Mikhail Ardzinov, believes Babadjanov is now being persecuted for battling to save his station and attempting to draw the international community's attention to Tashkent's repression of the independent media.


"Over the years the authorities here have managed to paralyse their political opponents," he said. "Opposition parties, like Erk and Birlik, and religious organisations are strictly controlled and repressed. Now it seems the government is taking on journalists who are not afraid to speak their minds."


The first secretary of Erk, Atanazar Arifov, agreed with the Ardzinov. "The authorities clipped our wings a long time ago, now they feel it's time for the journalists."


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project director in Uzbekistan