Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 15

Responding to international intercession, Uzbekistan has released two high-profile critics of the authorities, journalist Shodi Mardiev and poet Yusuf Juma, from detention.

Mardiev, a reporter with the Samarkand state-owned radio station, had been serving an eleven-year prison term, handed down in 1997, for defaming and attempting to extort money from a state official. The official in question: Samarkand’s deputy prosecutor, whose alleged corruption was the subject of a satirical radio program Mardiev produced. Both the defense and human rights groups maintained that Mardiev was being persecuted in reprisal for his critical stance toward government officials. The journalist, 63 years old and in poor health, was released ostensibly under the umbrella of a recently announced amnesty. The real reason, however, was more likely that President Islam Karimov deemed it a politically wise move.

Juma [Jumaev], on trial in the Bukhara regional court for allegedly inciting the overthrow of the constitutional order, has been given a suspended three-year sentence and was released in the courtroom, following an open trial attended by reporters and by Juma’s relatives. Juma, 58, has been a supporter of the secular-democratic movement Birlik [Unity] since its inception in 1989; the movement was banned in the early 1990s by the authorities, and has since divided into a moderate wing and an intransigent one. Juma’s political reputation in Uzbekistan dates back to 1988, when a poem of his decried the economic bondage of the republic to the Soviet Union.

Juma had been arrested last October in his native Karakul district, Buhara Region, on the basis of information supplied by some villagers to the police. He was charged with making seditious calls to holy war–in talking to villagers, in his written notes and in a poem titled “Jihad.” One of Birlik’s founding leaders, Abdumannob Polat–now the director of the Central Asian Human Rights Information Network in Washington–has released annotated English and Russian translations of Juma’s poem “Jihad,” from which it appears that the term is being used as a literary metaphor, rather than as an incitement to violence. Uzbek and international human rights organizations endorsed that interpretation. Another Juma poem denounced unnamed officials for incompetence and brutality and asked rhetorically how much longer would Uzbekistan be ruled by such officials. During the trial, Juma repented and asked for the people’s and the president’s pardon–a ritualistic gesture common to Uzbek court proceedings (Amnesty International, December 21, 2001; Committee to Protect Journalists press releases, January 18; Central Asian Human Rights Information Network press releases, January).

Uzbek authorities have promised to investigate two unresolved cases of death during detention last year: that of Shovruk Ruzimuradov, one of the leaders of Birlik and of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, and that of the Uzbek writer of Uighur origin Emin Usman. The expected clarifications have yet to materialize, however.

It remains to be seen whether the release of Mardiev and Juma constitutes the harbinger of a dialogue between the authorities on the one hand and human rights and moderate opposition groups on the other. Uzbekistan’s recently founded political and security partnership with the United States should facilitate such a dialogue. The Uzbek authorities could unwittingly undermine that partnership, if they misconstrue it as a license for continuing to exclude moderate, secular and pro-Western groups from political life. That risk was highlighted last December when Tashkent triggered an international outcry by attempting to obtain the extradition of writer Muhammad Solih, the emigre leader of the banned Erk [Freedom] Party, on unsubstantiated terrorism-related charges. The partnership with the U.S. provides an unprecedented chance for a step-by-step political opening, in a more secure environment than Uzbekistan has enjoyed at any time since 1992 (see the Monitor, September 11, December 6, 2001).