Photo: Shamil Zhumatov. Reuters. Via The Committee to Protect Journalists.
It has recently been announced that the longest-jailed journalist in the world is free. After 19 years, Uzbekistan has released Yusuf Ruzimuradov, now 64 years old. The journalist had originally been detained for his work at an independent newspaper called Erk, or Freedom. The government, seeing this paper and its writers as a political threat, arrested Ruzimuradov and his editor, Muhammad Bekjanov.
Both reporters were sentenced originally to 15 years in prison after a sham trial that convicted them for publishing and distributing a banned newspaper, which by extension was considered part of an attempt to overthrow the government. Those sentences were arbitrarily extended in the prisons until finally both journalists were recently released. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has confirmed that Ruzimuradov was freed in late February, even though the news is only just emerging.
The organization sees this as a definite victory, but is not consumed merely by celebration. “Today, we can breathe a sigh of relief that Yusuf Ruzimuradov–the longest imprisoned journalist in the world–has finally been released in #Uzbekistan, but we remain outraged at the grave injustice that robbed him of 19 years of his life,” the CPJ tweeted. The organization is calling further on the Uzbek government to release the other journalists still being held as political prisoners.
Two such trials are set to begin sometime this week. Yet one of the journalists on trial, Bobomurod Abdullaev, has had his court date postponed after undergoing harsh torture inside the Uzbek prison. The independent journalists concerned have been charged with “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime” and are facing up to 20 years in prison. Human rights groups have been urging that these charges be dropped and the prisoners be released immediately. Last month, 12 organizations issued a joint statement on the subject: “Uzbek authorities should ensure a thorough, impartial, and independent investigation into the alleged torture and other ill-treatment of a detained independent journalist … Uzbek authorities should immediately release Bobomurod Abdullaev and other people detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
While these human rights groups push for releases and reforms, the road to press freedom in Uzbekistan is long and perilous. Freedom House has ranked the status of the country’s press, net, and societal freedom as all “Not Free” in its annual reports. In its World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Uzbekistan at 169 out of 180 countries. This metric, placing the country as one of the most repressive in the world, has many implications. For activists celebrating the release of Ruzimuradov this week, it is a kind of reality check. The nation is still systematically oppressing free media. For those fixated more on this latter fact, however, every positive development is rather a welcome victory that inspires the continued fight for justice.