By: Bagila Bukharbayeva, Associated Press Writer
(AP) An independent journalist charged with sodomy went on trial Wednesday in Uzbekistan, in a case highlighting concerns about media freedom and pressure against homosexuals in this tightly controlled Central Asian country.
The arrest and closed trial of journalist Ruslan Sharipov, who is openly gay, has been criticized by international human rights and press groups.
Imprisoned since his May 26 arrest, he also faces charges of having sex with minors and managing prostitutes. In an open letter from jail to President Bush, Sharipov said those charges were fabricated and that he was being threatened with torture to confess.
Nazima Kamolova, one of Sharipov’s lawyers, said in an interview that the charges were “directly linked to his journalistic activities.” Sharipov on Wednesday demanded an open trial, but the judge refused, saying he wanted to protect the privacy of alleged victims in the case, who are minors.
Matilda Bogner, a researcher for the international group Human Rights Watch, said authorities were trying “to stop the case from being publicized and scrutinized.”
Uzbekistan’s human rights record has attracted more international attention since the country allowed U.S. troops to use a military base here. The news media is tightly controlled by the Uzbek government, which tolerates no dissent, and politically motivated prosecution of journalists is common.
Sharipov, who leads an independent group that focuses on media freedom, has repeatedly been detained, beaten, and questioned by police about his journalism and human rights activities.
His case has also brought to light the lesser-publicized issue of the rights of gay men and lesbians in the country.
Of the 15 former Soviet republics, only Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have maintained Soviet-era laws against sex between men, according to the International Lesbian and Gay Association.
Uzbekistan’s law is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Uzbekistan joined in 1995, Kamolova said. The U.N. Human Rights Committee in 1994 affirmed that the covenant covers sexual orientation, and called on countries to do away with laws that punish adult consensual homosexual acts.