Last edited: June 12, 2004

Gay Uzbek Journalist Waiting for Release

Associated Press, June 12, 2004

By Burt Herman

TASHKENT, UzbekistanA gay journalist whose conviction for sodomy and having sex with minors has been internationally condemned as politically motivated may have to wait up to a month before his early release, a prison official said Saturday.

Demonstrators and human rights activists had gathered outside a Tashkent minimum-security prison where Ruslan Sharipov is being held, expecting him to be freed. Their protest was broken up by a plainclothes security officer, who pulled banners from their hands and broke them over his knee, shouting homosexual epithets as other police looked on.

Sharipov was convicted in August 2003 of sodomy, sex with minors and involving minors in anti-social behavior and sentenced to 5 1/2 years. An appeals court overturned the last charge in September and reduced the jail term to four years.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry said in March that Sharipov could be freed June 11, or Friday, under a presidential amnesty that would further reduce his sentence, but the decision was apparently put off a day.

However, Col. Ludmila Nam of the prison administration agency said outside the prison Saturday that authorities had up to a month to assemble a commission to review Sharipov’s case. They will refer their findings to a court for a decision, but it wasn’t clear when that would happen.

Sharipov’s case has attracted widespread international criticism, and last month he was awarded the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom Award from the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers. Rights groups have called for his release, saying the charges were motivated by his critical articles.

There are no independent media in Uzbekistan. Although official censorship was abolished in 2002, media rights groups say self-censorship is widespread.

Before he was sentenced, Sharipov had abruptly dismissed his lawyers and pleaded guilty despite earlier maintaining his innocence. Later, in an open letter to the United Nations, Sharipov wrote he had been tortured and forced to write a suicide note declaring he had killed himself by his own choice.

Surat Ikramov, a leading Uzbek human rights activist, called Saturday for Sharipov’s immediate release for health reasons, saying he had been treated last month for heart problems that have plagued him since birth.

Ikramov also expressed concern Sharipov would still have to pay a portion of his salary in fines after his release and wouldn’t have complete freedom of movement.

After about 10 demonstrators unfurled banners outside the prison with Sharipov’s picture, a larger group of plainclothes security agents arrived. One man, who gave his name only as Karim, started shouting at the group, asking them if they were “waiting for their orders from the West” and saying they “didn’t need to protect terrorists.”

Karim also shouted epithets, and told the group “I wish your children would fall under the influence of people like him (Sharipov).”

Ikramov said Sharipov, reached on a mobile phone inside the prison, said the prison director demanded the group outside disperse and threatened him. The demonstrators left after about an hour.

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