Ezgulik (Mercy), a leading human rights organization in Uzbekistan, is facing criminal prosecution in a libel case for which the group has already been tried in civil court, the independent Uzbek online news service uznews.net reported. The case stems from a statement Ezgulik made in 2007 regarding popular singer Dilnura Kadyrjanova after her death.
Ezgulik is specifically charged with a statement on behalf of the parents of Kadyrjanova, who sought custody of the singer's children. The children's governess, Rene Metmuradova was given guardianship over the children after their mother's death, and it is she who filed the libel suit against Ezgulik.
Kadyrjanova, 31, an award-winning performer who had once met President Karimov, was found dead hanging from the handle of a wardrobe in her Tashkent apartment on September 12, 2007. Her death was ruled a suicide by police. Kadyrjanova, mother of three, allegedly had a lover, Jamshid Matlyubov, said to be the father of her son. Matlyubov is head of Tashkent's Yakkasaray District Police Department, and the brother of Bahodyr Matlyubov, Uzbekistan's Interior Minister. Human rights groups fear that these powerful officials have kept the case alive in retaliation against those who defended the interests of the singer's family.
In December 2010, police raided Egzulik's office and confiscated equipment in payment for fines totaling the equivalent of $140. While it seemed the matter was settled, in late February, police informed Ezgulik that a criminal case involving the same statement has now been opened under Article 139 (libel) and Article 140 (insult) of the Uzbek Criminal Code. These statutes provide punishment for up to three years in prison or a fine of between $4,200-$12,600, based on 200-600 times the minimum monthly wage.
Vasila Inoyatova,, head of Ezgulik, said Metmuradova had already filed two civil libel suits and won damages. "If we are convicted for a third time over an article in which we defended the rights of a grandmother to bring up her grandchildren, it would be a travesty of Uzbek law,” uznews.net quoted Inoyatova as saying.
The criminal libel suit is among a string of harassment incidents that Ezgulik, the only registered non-governmental human rights group in Uzbekistan, has been suffering recently. Last year, the office was ransacked and equipment stolen; police then later confiscated replacements. The group is also fending off various lawsuits brought by former members of their organization. The purpose seems to be to keep the group tied up in self-defense against litigation so that they have little time to become involved in human rights work.
If convicted under the latest suit, Inoyatova would not be eligible for an amnesty as a "repeat offender". The case is the latest among a series of libel cases launched against journalists and human rights activists by the government, including photographer Umida Akhmedova, Voice of American correspondent Abdumalik Boboyev, Russian journalist Vladimir Berezovsky and Surat Ikramov, of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists who was also convicted of libel and fined for his statement in 2008 about the Kadyrjanova's death.
The Expert Working Group, an association of lawyers and human rights activists in Uzbekistan, issued a statement via email on March 4, condemning the harassment of Ezgyulik and saying that the theft of equipment last year and the various criminal cases launched against the NGO have been deliberately instigated by the authorities to "distract the organization from its important work and discredit the human rights activists in the eyes of the public."