Outrage at Jail Term for Karakalpak Eco-Official

Outrage at Jail Term for Karakalpak Eco-Official

Friday, 10 April, 2009
Rights activists and journalists in Karakalpakstan, in the north of Uzbekistan, have raised the alarm about a string of court cases on dissidents.

On April 7, a criminal court in Karakalpakstan held the first hearing in a case against Makset Kosbergenov, the head of the Amu Darya river inspectorate of Uzbekistan’s State Environmental Control Department.

Kosbergenov was arrested last December and is charged with abuse of his official position. He is accused of taking a 1,500 US dollar bribe from a subordinate, who in turn is said to have received it from a businessman.

A biologist by training, Kosbergenov is well-known among scientists and environmentalists for his fight against poaching of the saiga antelope, an endangered species which survives in the semideserts of this part of Central Asia.

He appears to have irritated the authorities by writing articles about environmental issues in Karakalpakstan, where the drying up of the Aral Sea has caused numerous ecological problems.

The case appears to demonstrate that officials will not tolerate the expression of dissenting views even of an apolitical nature.

In early April, nearly 100 environmental groups and journalists from several states of the former Soviet Union wrote to Uzbek president Islam Karimov to expressed doubt about the charges leveled against Kosbergenov.

“The opponents of truth are too strong and too embittered,” commented Yevgeny Roman, an environmentalist in Ukraine who is concerned about his colleague’s detention.

This is not the only recent case of its kind in Karakalpakstan, which formally has the status of an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan.

In November, the Uzbek Supreme Court upheld a ten-year jail sentence handed down to Solijon Abdurahmanov, a human rights activist and journalist from Karakalpakstan.

He was convicted on drugs charges, which he denies. Before his arrest, he wrote articles published on the internet about corruption in Karakalpakstan.

In 2007, Tursunbay Utemuradov, who heads the Karakalpakstan branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was arrested, prosecuted and then released after paying a 3,500-dollar fine. The local branch of the human rights group was then closed down.

“That was the point at which they began finessing their techniques for crushing civil society,” said a local journalist.

An activist from the local capital Nukus believes the authorities are using prosecution as a way of stopping information getting out about what is happening in Karakalpakstan.

Commentators agree that politically-motivated criminal charges are being used not only to cover up human rights abuses, but also the Aral crisis.

The area around the sea has suffered desertification and local climate change, with strong winds that scatter polluted sand. These factors, compounded by poor access to drinking water , has created high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Observers say the region’s severe social and economic problems could give rise to protest, and this will not be helped by the detention of well-known local figures.

“The community is now discussing possible secession from Uzbekistan for Karakalpakstan,” said local commentator. “The security services are aware of this, so they are making it a priority to combat dissident views and the dissemination of accurate information.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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