Free Abdumalik Boboyev

In my third year reporting in Central Asia, I was summoned to the press spokesman for Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. My articles from Newsweek and the Washington Post were spread across his desk. “Can you not find one good thing to say about my country?” he asked. His face was stretched taut. And with that, ...

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

In my third year reporting in Central Asia, I was summoned to the press spokesman for Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. My articles from Newsweek and the Washington Post were spread across his desk. "Can you not find one good thing to say about my country?" he asked. His face was stretched taut. And with that, I was invited to leave Tashkent. For the next five years.

Fortunately, I was able simply to cross the border and set up in neighboring Kazakhstan, from which I reported for the subsequent years -- including cross-border news-gathering forays on foot back to Tashkent in a charade with the Uzbek authorities. (I pretended I wasn't there, and they pretended not to be watching.) The situation is completely different for Abdumalik Boboyev, an Uzbek reporter for the Voice of America, and one of the last -- perhaps the last -- journalist on the ground delivering the type of globally distributed reporting that can get you expelled or jailed.

In my third year reporting in Central Asia, I was summoned to the press spokesman for Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. My articles from Newsweek and the Washington Post were spread across his desk. “Can you not find one good thing to say about my country?” he asked. His face was stretched taut. And with that, I was invited to leave Tashkent. For the next five years.

Fortunately, I was able simply to cross the border and set up in neighboring Kazakhstan, from which I reported for the subsequent years — including cross-border news-gathering forays on foot back to Tashkent in a charade with the Uzbek authorities. (I pretended I wasn’t there, and they pretended not to be watching.) The situation is completely different for Abdumalik Boboyev, an Uzbek reporter for the Voice of America, and one of the last — perhaps the last — journalist on the ground delivering the type of globally distributed reporting that can get you expelled or jailed.

Today was the scheduled second day of the 41-year-old Boboyev’s trial on charges of endangering public security (writing articles) and illegally crossing the border into Kazakhstan (his passport was missing an official exit stamp).  A 12-page charge sheet says that Boboyev “degraded the image of the Uzbek people and their government,” “questioned the internal and foreign policy of Uzbekistan,” and “interviewed experts and activists who told lies about the country’s progress.” He faces up to eight years in prison, which is no joke in Uzbekistan, where prisoners can — and do — die in custody.

Karimov is enjoying a new honeymoon with the United States, part of his two-decade-long cycle of flitting between romances with Moscow and Washington. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent issued the following statement in response to a query by Eurasianet.org’s David Trilling: “We are very concerned by the arrest and impending trial of Mr. Boboyev. We are following the case very closely and expect Uzbekistan to uphold its constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.” In addition, Ian Kelly, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Washington “calls upon Uzbekistan to stop the criminal prosecution of journalists based solely on their reporting.” Moreover, as regards local statutes allowing for such prosecutions, he said, Uzbekistan and all countries in the region should  “repeal such laws at the earliest opportunity.”

Reporters San Frontieres calls such statements “an accommodating attitude.” Karimov has a thin but existing record of responding to international pressure on human rights, especially if the payoff is a visit with a really cool Western leader. On the other hand, when the geopolitical cycle runs out, he also has a record of summarily severing contact, such as he did following the 2005 Andijan massacre of hundreds of protesters, when the U.S. lost rights to the Khanabad military base.

My colleague Dan Drezner and I have been debating the relative importance of the U.S. strategic relationship with Central Asia. It’s not an easy debate. On either side of the scale are a quiet voice on human rights and a platform for materiel shipments to Afghanistan. Given the security problem on the other land route into Afghanistan — Pakistan’s Torkham and Chaman crossings, where last week saw dozens of U.S. fuel trucks go up in flames — the latter choice becomes ascendant. And Karimov knows it.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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