A political journalist in Uzbekistan who has languished behind bars for 18 years has been released in a development that has elicited elated responses from rights activists.
Muhammad Bekjanov, the 63-year old brother of prominent exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of threatening the constitutional order. His sentence was extended by five years in 2012 on the grounds that he had violated unspecified prison rules.
News of Bekjanov’s release was broken by his relatives and Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“I am sure that this decision was made at the very top of the Uzbek leadership, and it was the right one,” Niyazova wrote on her Facebook account.
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow welcomed Bekjanov’s release, while noting that much more remained to be done by Uzbek authorities to address the country’s blemished rights record.
“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Swerdlow said in a statement.
Bekjanov was not released by virtue of any reprieve but rather because he had served his original sentence in full, and then some.
“We welcome his release, although it is important to note that he was only released following the arbitrary extension of his prison term in 2012 on wholly absurd grounds and fully served out his extended term. In this case Bekjanov left prison at the end of his term,” Swerdlow said.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somoni Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somoni Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somoni Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somoni Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somoni Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somoni Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
The first regular scheduled flight between Uzbekistan and Dushanbe in 25 years was unexpectedly nixed on February 20 in an embarrassing anticlimax after weeks of anticipation.
Privately owned Tajik carrier Somoni Air said in a statement of apology to its customers that the flight was cancelled on the instructions of the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
It is not clear what lies behind the cancellation of the flight and this threatens to descend into an all-too familiar round of mutual accusations.
State-run carrier Uzbekistan Airlines has blamed Somoni Air for the impasse.
“Somoni Air did not submit form “R,” which lists all the requisite conditions for completing an international flight. That is the main reason for this flight being cancelled,” a spokesperson for the airline told EurasiaNet.org.
The company promised a full explanation would be posted on its website by the end of the day, but that statement failed to materialize by the promised time.
An estimated 26 passengers had been due to travel on the flight.
Tajik news website Asia-Plus reported that disappointed customers were reimbursed or given tickets for the flight from the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, to Khujand. In the absence of a direct link to Tashkent, many people in Tajikistan traveling to Uzbekistan typically make their way to the northern city of Khujand and then cross the border overland.
It had all started so promisingly.
A trial flight between Dushanbe, and Tashkent was carried out on January 10. A total of 56 people, including Somoni Air representatives, journalists and regular passengers, flew on that occasion. The travelers were met with a great fanfare at Tashkent airport.
Any musician or singer in Uzbekistan hoping to make a living on their stage has had for years to contend with the all-important parastatal Uzbeknavo performance agency. Dancers, meanwhile, obtained their performing licenses from an analogous body called Uzbekraks.
Media have reported this week that these two entities are by presidential decree now to be dissolved and merged into a single body, Uzbekkoncert, which will operate under the aegis of the Culture Ministry.
The new organization will oversee around 2,500 solo and group acts. Authorities have said this entity will be a more effective mechanism for developing the performance industry.
Historically, Uzbeknavo has been used in large part as a stick to wield over artists to keep them in line. Denial of licenses typically represents the death of any jobbing musician’s career as it deprives them of the right to make a living performing at public venues and most certainly on television or the radio.
In the best-publicized instance of licenses being revoked, perceptions of moral failings or suspect political views have usually been at play. Officials are also wont to voice concern at what they see as alien and culturally inappropriate fads.
Prior to the announcement that Uzbeknavo was to be dissolved, its head, Murod Madjidov, was switched out in favor of Kabul Yuldashev, about whom little public information is available. Yuldashev, 49, who was previously deputy head of Uzbeknavo, will now preside over the Uzbekkoncert merger.
Olim Sulaimanov, an Uzbek businessman who came to prominence last year after posting a video online alleging he had been harassed for bribes by tax officials. (Olim Sulaimanov Facebook account)
Things are going from bad to worse for Uzbekistan’s anticorruption whistleblower with a court ordering his confinement to a pretrial detention facility pending criminal hearings into corruption.
Olim Sulaimanov, who came to prominence last year after posting a video online alleging he had been harassed for bribes by tax officials, appeared in Mirzo Ulugbek district court in Tashkent on February 15 following a surprise summons from investigators earlier this month.
Sulaimanov had said hearings were due to take place last week, but that his lawyer, Amriddin Abdullayev, could not be reached, possibly as a result of pressure from the authorities. The businessman arrived in court with Abdullayev and his 17-year old son Egamberdy Sulaimanov in the middle of the afternoon. Two representatives from the US Embassy also came to the court building but were denied entry to the hearing.
The judge made no ruling during the preliminary hearing, postponing arguments until February 20, but nonetheless appears to have ordered that Sulaimanov be placed in custody at a Tashkent city police precinct holding facility, Egamberdy Sulaimanov told EurasiaNet.org.
“I was not allowed to enter the courtroom and neither were employees of the US Embassy. When the hearing ended, only the lawyer, Abdullayev, emerged and he told me that my father had been temporarily detained and was being transferred to the Tashkent city police pretrial detention facility,” the son said.
The founder of Uzbekistan’s first privately run bank has been released from jail after 19 years of a sentence that was, rights advocates say, arbitrarily extended.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, cited a relative of Rustam Usmanov as saying he was released on February 13.
“We met him at Zhaslyk prison and brought him to Tashkent. His state of health is poor and he is now receiving treatment. But he is in good spirit and he thanks [President Shavkat] Mirziyoyev,” the family member told Ozodlik.
Usmanov, 69, was convicted of fraud in 1998 and sentenced to 14 years in jail. His sentence was due to expire in 2012, but was extended by another five years.
He is best known for setting up Rustambank in the early 1990s, but earlier, in 1987, he set up a cooperative company producing honey. Usmanov then branched out into breeding and selling earthworms. Those enterprises turned him into a dollar millionaire and so, in 1992, he opened the country’s first private lender with a registered capital of $1.2 million.
The business success put him in close proximity with the country’s ruling elite, from President Islam Karimov himself to erstwhile Interior Minister Zokir Almatov.
But Usmanov distinguished himself for his lack of deference to authority, as he detailed in his 1995 book “Interrupted Flight.” Opposition news website eltuz.com published extracts from the book in December 2015 that outlined his philosophy.
Uzbek entrepreneur Olim Sulaimanov speaking in a Facebook video address posted on February 11 in which he speaks about his latest run-ins with prosecutors. (Source: Facebook screenshot)
An entrepreneur in Uzbekistan who made a splash last year after appearing on national television to complain about the excesses of corrupt officials has himself now been targeted with fresh criminal investigations.
Back in November, Olim Sulaimanov provoked a sensation with his appearance on the TV show Business Club, where he explained how employees with a branch of the anti-finance crime department of the Prosecutor General’s Office in Tashkent had tried to extort money from him. The businessman named names and figures in his description of how tax officials were targeting his company.
Now, investigators are getting their own back. Earlier this month, Sulaimanov was summoned to appear in Mirzo Ulugbek district court in Tashkent to hear a case filed against him by Tashkent prosecutors on charges of fraud and slander.
As before, Sulaimanov has made full use of social media to document his situation.
“I was stunned when on February 1 I got a phone call from a judge called Kamolov and he summoned me to court the next day as an accused party. Actually, the Tashkent city court is currently considering my appeal [in an unrelated case] and the return of 203 million sum ($57,000) confiscated from my accounts. It turns out that I am involved in two cases at the same time,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The entrepreneur suggested that some strange developments indicate the authorities are trying to apply pressure, as is customary. Sulaimanov said he did not attend a hearing eventually set for February 8 as his lawyer, Amriddin Abdullayev, informed him he was outside the city and therefore unable to come to court. Sulaimanov hinted that the lawyer had come under pressure.
A plane carrying paying customers, officials and reporters completed the first commercial flight between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for the first time in 25 years, signaling a hopeful new chapter in the two countries’ often-strained relations.
The plane departed the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, at 10 a.m. on February 10 and arrived less than an hour later in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
“The Tashkent-Dushanbe-Tashkent flight, which the peoples of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have awaited for 25 years, was made possible by the willingness of the two nations’ leader to meet halfway,” Tom Hallam, chief executive at Tajikistan’s privately owned Somon Air, was quoted as saying by RIA Novosti news agency.
Regular flights along the same route are scheduled to start from February 20.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia-Plus reported that only 14 tickets were sold for the maiden flight. Aside from paying customers, other fliers included aviation officials and journalists.
Asia-Plus quoted one passenger, Jamila Yusupova, as describing the flight as a momentous personal occasion.
“I am originally from Tashkent and back in the Soviet days I moved to Tajikistan together with my husband. And it has been 25 years since I have not been able to see my family. Now my brother and sister, who I haven’t seen for a quarter of a century, are waiting for me there,” she said.
Narmurad Rajabov, an ethnic Tajik living in the city of Bukhara, said his brother lived in neighboring Tajikistan. He said they had not seen one another for many years because of the difficulties entailed in securing a visa.
The recently released trailer for a film telling the story of militant Uzbek Islamist leaders Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani has come in from criticism for its depiction of devout Muslims.
The promotional preview for Sacred Desire, a production by state film company Uzbekfilm, promises an action-packed melodrama spilling over with scenes of Islamic plotting, domestic violence, gun-battles and even some sly seduction.
“Most social media website users were extremely irritated by director Hilol Nasimov’s film, where by showing terrorists, they smear the Muslim faith,” BBC’s Uzbek service reported on February 7.
The trailer is also tainted by a decidedly racist depiction of an Arabic character, according to critics of the movie. An older female character in the movie is seen shouting that she refuses to see her daughter married off to “some black Arab.”
“I was quite amazed when I heard the expression ‘black Arab’ in the trailer. Why this is blatant racism!” blogger Arbor Masharipov was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The BBC quoted another blogger, Sardor Salim, as comparing Uzbekfilm’s current output with the kinds of films made in the Soviet era about the basmachis, a Central Asian insurgency that sought and failed to counter Moscow’s rule.
One unnamed woman, a self-described devout Muslim, told the British broadcaster that if she had lived in a rules-based country, she might have considered filing suit against Nasimov for slandering Muslims, and women in particular.
Officials in Uzbekistan are reportedly looking into ways of developing a domestic innovation sector and create the country’s own Silicon Valley.
Russian state-run news website Sputnik has cited an official with the IT and Communications Development Ministry as saying an innovation center could be set up within a free economic zone at the Inha University in Tashkent — an affiliate institution of South Korea’s Incheon-based Inha University.
As the ministry representative envisions the proposed center, it would serve as a hub for high-tech and locally developed IT products.
“Our idea is for Inha University in Tashkent to become the birthplace of a Silicon Valley in Uzbekistan,” Sputnik’s source said.
Uzbekistan is drawing on the experience of Belarus as a model.
As Reuters news agency reported last year, high-tech companies based in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, employ around 24,000 people and in 2015 exported technology worth $700 million. One notable famous Belarusian software export is the World of Tanks game, which is played by countless millions of people around the world.
There is little sense in thinking about developing innovation without the financial means in place, however. Limitations on the movement of money in and out of Uzbekistan — not to speak of within it — make the creation of a new export commodity from thin air a de facto impossibility.
Sputnik’s source said developers in Uzbekistan working with foreign clients currently circumvent restrictions by using payment systems based outside the country and then cash out through third parties.