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Cablegate: Uzbekistan: Freedom of Expression Under Strain

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2010-01-28 13:35:00 10TASHKENT47 Embassy Tashkent CONFIDENTIAL 10TASHKENT29|10TASHKENT34 VZCZCXRO0387\
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INFO ALL SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA COLLECTIVE\
CIS COLLECTIVE\
NATO EU COLLECTIVE\
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC\
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC\
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 0080\
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RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 TASHKENT 000047 \
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SENSITIVE \
SIPDIS \
AMEMBASSY ASTANA PASS TO AMCONSUL ALMATY \
AMEMBASSY HELSINKI PASS TO AMCONSUL ST PETERSBURG \
AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PASS TO AMCONSUL VLADIVOSTOK \
AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PASS TO AMCONSUL YEKATERINBURG \
AMEMBASSY BELGRADE PASS TO AMEMBASSY PODGORICA \
AMEMBASSY ATHENS PASS TO AMCONSUL THESSALONIKI \
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E.O. 12958: DECL: 2020/01/28 \
TAGS: PREL PHUM ELAB PGOV UZ
SUBJECT: Uzbekistan: Freedom of Expression under Strain \
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REF: 10 TASHKENT 34; 10 TASHKENT 29 \
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CLASSIFIED BY: Holly Lindquist Thomas, P/E Officer, Tashkent; REASON: \
1.4(B), (D) \
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1. (SBU) Summary: Post continues to follow three cases \
involving constraints on freedom of expression. The defamation \
case against photographer Umida Ahmedova continues, with the latest \
information that she has refused an offer for amnesty in exchange \
for a guilty plea. Authorities have opened charges of starting an \
illegal religious organization against popular soccer commentator \
and religious speaker Khayrulla Khamidov. Journalist Husniddin \
Kutbiddinov has reason to believe that his recent questioning by \
prosecutors is just the beginning, and that a criminal case is sure \
to follow. These cases argue for stepping up the "human dimension" \
component of our dialogue with Uzbekistan. End summary. \
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Photographer Under Fire Gains International Support \
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2. (U) As mentioned in Ref B, photographer Umida Ahmedova has \
been charged with defaming the country of Uzbekistan for pictures \
included in the documentaries "Customs of Men and Women" and "The \
Burden of Virginity." A state-sponsored panel of experts, made up \
of specialists in the fields of religion, culture, and psychology \
reviewed the two works in question and concluded that her works do \
in fact insult the country. A court could use this report as the \
basis for a guilty verdict in the case. If found guilty, Ahmedova \
could face heavy fines and jail time of up to five years. \
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3. (U) On January 24, investigators called Ahmedova in for \
questioning and offered to grant her amnesty in return for a guilty \
plea. She refused, stating that she is guilty of nothing. Some \
publishers who worked on her photo album were also charged in the \
case and have reportedly accepted similar offers for amnesty. \
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4. (C) The Swiss Embassy in Tashkent sponsored a book of \
Ahmedova's photography, printed in 2008, and also financed the \
first half of one of the documentaries in question. The Swiss \
Embassy discontinued its support for the remainder of the project \
after there were some concerns over the controversial nature of the \
subject matter. In a U.S. Embassy-sponsored briefing on January \
25, Swiss Ambassador Anne Bauty brought with her several copies of \
the book, and briefly discussed the documentary. Although Bauty \
did not go into detail regarding the controversial nature of the \
project, she did voice her support for Ahmedova, stating that it is \
important to support artistic expression. Interestingly, an Uzbek \
human rights activist/journalist in attendance at the event stated \
that he had seen the complete documentary, and that he felt that \
Ahmedova had indeed gone too far in her depictions of Uzbekistan \
and its problems, given Uzbek cultural norms. \
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5. (SBU) The Paris-based International Association of Art \
Critics (IAAC) has started a campaign in Ahmedova's defense, \
sending an appeal with nearly 1000 signatures to Uzbekistan's \
Interior and Foreign Ministries calling on Uzbek authorities to \
respect Ahmedova's universal right to freedom of expression. The \
Committee to Protect Journalists and other groups have called on \
Uzbek authorities to drop the charges. Ahmedova told us that she \
expects more serious charges to be filed against her in the coming \
days. \
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6. (C) Comment: The book of Ahmedova's photography supported \
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by the Swiss Embassy shows beautiful pictures of Uzbekistan's \
varied people and landscapes, as well as some more controversial \
images of boys following a circumcision and a woman in a bikini. \
While these would probably not be considered "defamatory" to the \
western eye, they do not easily fit with the tightly-controlled \
image that the GOU prefers to portray of Uzbekistan. (One rumor \
floating about states that President's Karimov daughter, Gulnora, \
had the book in her home, and that when the elder Karimov saw it, \
he disapproved and prompted the subsequent court action.) The \
documentary most likely went much further than the book in \
portraying images not in line with "Uzbek values." But although \
there have been other negative depictions of Uzbekistan in the \
past, this is apparently the first case in independent Uzbekistan's \
short history where the GOU has clamped down on an artist in this \
way. We have flagged our deep concerns with the MFA, which is \
aware of the growing international reaction. While public \
expressions of USG concern would likely only cause the GOU to dig \
in its heels, we should continue to point out privately to GOU \
interlocutors the damage a trial and conviction could do. End \
comment. \
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Influential Commentator Arrested and Held in Custody \
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7. (SBU) On January 21, authorities arrested Khayrulla \
Khamidov for allegedly establishing an illegal religious \
organization. His family reported that the police arrived at 5am, \
searched the house for several hours, and then took Khamidov, along \
with several books and CDs, into custody. He has remained in \
custody since then. Khamidov is a prominent soccer commentator, \
but he is better-known for his sermons and articles on Islam. For \
years, he hosted a weekly radio broadcast called "Kholislik Sari" \
(Towards Fairness) in which he discussed the role of Islam in \
ordinary life. Although the program was discontinued in 2008, CDs \
of the broadcasts remain popular throughout Uzbekistan. He was \
also editor-in-chief of a popular newspaper "Odamlar Orasida" \
(Among People) that raised social issues before being shut down in \
July 2007. Since then he has worked as the deputy editor-in-chief \
of a sporting publication. Khamidov is also an alumni of the State \
Department's Edward R. Murrow International Visitor Program (2005), \
and has remained a close contact of the Embassy, although he has \
been cautious over the last few years with direct contact. \
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8. (SBU) Khamidov was a popular speaker at weddings and other \
social occasions, and had gained a large following through his \
activities. There is an unconfirmed report that a video clip taken \
from a cell phone of one such social engagement is the basis for \
the charges against him. Khamidov was known to speak about social \
problems facing Uzbekistan, such as alcoholism, drug use, \
prostitution, and even human trafficking. He also tried to \
discourage women from going abroad to work and from wearing \
provocative clothing. Khamidov posted poems on the internet \
regarding these same general themes. He advocated living one's \
life in a manner consistent with Muslim values, but he generally \
did not espouse fundamentalist or radical ideas. Khamidov has \
reportedly been warned in the past about the danger of continuing \
his activities, and unknown assailants broke his nose and leg in \
two separate incidents in 2007 and 2008. \
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9. (SBU) Authorities kept Khamidov in a pre-trial detention \
facility through last weekend, and on January 26 the Tashkent \
regional criminal court reportedly approved a motion to continue \
holding him in detention throughout the investigation of the \
charges. If found guilty, Khamidov could face heavy fines and up \
to five years in jail. \
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10. (C) The domestic and international internet websites \
covering Uzbekistan have been quick to cover this story, and some \
misinformation has resulted. The BBC reported on January 26 that \
influential former mufti Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf appealed to \
law-enforcement authorities to free Khamidov, and also said that \
Khamidov had only spoken to members of a more conservative brand of \
Islam (Salafiya) in an effort to persuade them of the incorrectness \
of their path. (Such a conversation could theoretically be the \
basis of the charges against Khamidov.) Relatives of Sodiq \
informed Embassy personnel, however, that he has had no involvement \
with Khamidov or his legal case, and the BBC report is without \
merit. \
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11. (U) The Uzbek language services of the BBC and Radio Free \
Europe both published quotes from Khamidov's mother and lawyer \
about his current conditions. Both stated, using very similar \
language, that Khamidov is in good health and is being treated \
well, with adequate food and water. His mother was quoted as \
saying that she trusted that the State would step in and assist in \
this matter. \
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12. (C) Comment: Typically, the pre-trial detention period is \
the most dangerous time for a defendant, and is often when beatings \
occur in attempts to coerce a confession. The statements of \
Khamidov's attorney and family members regarding his conditions may \
well be inaccurate, designed to improve his situation or at least \
not add fuel to the fire during the investigation of the charges. \
It will be interesting to see if this is a successful tactic. If \
the case continues true to form, the investigation will be followed \
by a short trial, which will be followed by a lengthy prison term. \
End comment. \
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A Journalist Struggles Following an Interview with Prosecutors \
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13. (C) Husniddin Kutbiddinov was one of the journalists called \
in by prosecutors on January 5. (See Ref A.) Kutbiddinov told \
poloff on January 27 that he has not been harassed or pressured \
since that time, but he fears that charges against him are \
forthcoming. \
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14. (C) In his interview, authorities confronted Kutbiddinov with \
several articles he wrote under pseudonyms, and mentioned five \
pseudonyms they believed he has been using. Kutbiddinov had indeed \
written the articles in question, and has used four of the five \
pseudonyms in articles for an Almaty-based "Voice of Freedom" news \
website. In December 2007 authorities warned Kutbiddinov that he \
would face charges should he continue his work as a journalist in \
Uzbekistan, and he agreed to cease his activities. With that \
conversation in mind, while tempted to admit the truth, he denied \
writing the articles and using the pseudonyms. In response to his \
denial, the prosecutor smiled and told him, "we know what's been \
going on." \
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15. (C) Kutbiddinov is convinced that prosecutors are building a \
criminal case against him, and that it is only a matter of time \
before he is taken into custody. His family is struggling \
financially, in part because employers are unwilling to hire his \
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relatives. The only money coming in to support his wife, daughter, \
sister, and two nephews comes from the Almaty-based news website, \
and the authorities have already shown him that they are aware of \
the incoming Western Union transactions of the payments. In his \
interview, authorities hinted that it would be better for him to \
leave Uzbekistan, and Kutbiddinov is beginning to believe that \
leaving is his best course of action. Concerned that Uzbekistan's \
National Security Service has long arms into Bishkek and Almaty, he \
intends to apply for refugee status in Turkey, if he can collect \
the necessary resources needed for an extended stay for him and his \
family. In the meantime, he will continue to publish articles the \
best he can. \
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16. (C) Comment: (See paragraphs 6 and 12.) The cases against \
Khomidov and Kutbiddinov, while disturbing, do not represent a \
departure from previous tactics used by the GOU to silence \
dissenting voices. The charges against Ahmedova, however, seem \
more unusual, and the most blatant attack on artistic freedom in \
some time. It's not clear whether these cases represent a \
concerted effort to stifle expression in 2010, indeed it seems more \
likely to be simply coincidence that these cases come on the heels \
of each other. Nevertheless, these difficult cases show that \
repression remains a tool of state policy in Uzbekistan. All of \
them, but particularly the case against Ahmedova, will likely bring \
much negative international attention to Uzbekistan. These cases \
argue for stepping up the "human dimension" component of our \
bilateral dialogue with Uzbekistan. End comment. \
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NORLAND \

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