An Uzbekistan court’s decision to jail Otabek Sattoriy, an independent blogger who has investigated alleged corruption by local authorities, is a miscarriage of justice and blow to freedom of speech in Uzbekistan. On May 10 a Surkhandaryo region court found Sattoriy guilty on three counts of extortion and two counts of slander and sentenced him to six-and-a-half years in prison. Authorities initially brought the dubious criminal charges against Sattoriy for allegedly extorting a mobile phone from the head of a local bazaar. Following his arrest, authorities brought additional charges of slander and extortion after several individuals implicated in alleged corruption through Sattoriy’s reporting filed complaints. Sattoriy’s lawyer Umidbek Davlatov called the charges “fabricated” and argued in his closing arguments on May 4 that the prosecutor had failed to present any material evidence of wrongdoing by his client. Davlatov said Sattoriy plans to appeal the ruling. Uzbekistan’s leadership, including President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, have made lofty claims of putting respect for human rights at the center of ongoing reforms. But actions speak louder than words. Jailing an inconvenient blogger exposes the reality of the repressive environment for free speech in Uzbekistan today. Uzbekistan’s partners, including the United States and the European Union and its member states such as Germany and the United Kingdom, should call for Sattoriy’s release and urge Uzbek authorities to protect free speech.
The European Union recently granted Uzbekistan special trade privileges under the GSP+ scheme, offering a clear opportunity for close review of Tashkent’s compliance with human rights standards, including on free speech. Sattoriy is not the only critical blogger to be targeted recently by authorities.
The Tashkent-based blogger, Miraziz Bazarov, himself the victim of a vicious physical attack, is now under investigation on criminal charges of slander. Targeting bloggers with dubious criminal charges or sentencing them to lengthy jail terms has a chilling effect on free speech and undermines the Uzbek government’s claims of pursuing reform. Respecting freedom of speech means hearing uncomfortable truths and ensuring that bloggers, citizens in general, and journalists can raise and report on sensitive and pressing issues – like corruption – without fear of retaliation, prosecution, and imprisonment. Respecting free speech also means that Otabek Sattoriy should not have to spend another day in jail.
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