UPDATE: Uzbekistan: Ahmedova charged with defamation against Uzbek nation

© Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Police in Uzbekistan are compiling an unusual criminal case against one of the country’s leading photographers, Umida Ahmedova. The charge is defamation, and the insulted party is the population of Uzbekistan. IWPR has learned that Ahmedova was required to sign an undertaking not to leave the country by a police investigator on January 13. A month earlier, she was charged with defamation and with harming Uzbekistan's reputation, RFE/RL radio reported. The case against her is based on two articles of the criminal code, carrying penalties of up to six months in jail. Update on Uzbekistan: Woman Human Rights Defender Umida Ahmedova Facing Charges

The substance of the alleged defamation differs from any run-of-the-mill libel case – it is said to be not against any individual, but against the Uzbek nation as a whole. Nor is it based on statements made by Ahmedova; instead, the charges derive from visual images of life in the countryside, which have been deemed too negative.

Police investigator Komil Akbarov has released a document containing the joint findings of the Centre for Mass Communications Monitoring and a group of experts including a religious affairs analyst and two psychologists, whom the authorities tasked with assessing Ahmedova’s photographic and documentary film work.

They wrote the report after studying a published collection of Ahmedova’s photographs called “Women and Men from Dawn to Dusk”, and two documentaries that she co-authored called "The Burden Of Virginity" and "Women and Men in Custom and Ritual".

Censors and experts agreed that the material contained “unscientific, unfounded and inappropriate commentaries containing a hidden subtext intended to discredit the principles and customs of the [Uzbek] nation”.

“The Burden of Virginity”, which can be seen here, deals with the tradition that young women must maintain chastity until marriage, and showed the story of a girl driven from the bridegroom’s home in shame. The film was funded by the Swiss embassy in Tashkent and released in May 2009.

“Dissemination of this film does great damage to the spiritual values of Uzbekistan,” said the official report. “It does not correspond to ideological requirements.”

The other documentary and Ahmedova’s book of photos showed how people live in remote parts of Uzbekistan. Her depiction of reality offended both censors and experts, who concluded, “Ninety per cent of the photos in the album were taken in remote, backward villages and the authors aimed to show the tough side of life. Umida Ahmedova’s lens does not capture beautiful places, modern buildings and prosperous villages.”

Ahmedova says the charges are so lacking in substance that it would rebound on the authorities if they put her on trial.

“I’m hoping the case will collapse as it has no foundation whatsoever,” she said. “These expert findings amount to nothing at all. I’m counting on them to have the common sense not to take this to a trial which would evoke a furious response and bring down still greater shame on them.”

Surat Ikramov, who heads the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders in Uzbekistan, praises Ahmedova for portraying life as people live it.

“This is documentary photography,” he said. “It’s the creative approach of an individual, in this case a photojournalist.”

Ikramov believes the fact that such a prosecution could be envisaged at all reflects badly on the authorities.

“It’s absurd and comical,” he said. “They should be ashamed of themselves. I believe the entire world is going to be laughing at this.”

Yelena Urlaeva of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan says the authorities are pursuing the case because they do not want wider public awareness of social conditions and problems in the country.

“The authorities are afraid that her photographs show that poverty is rife in Uzbekistan, that people are in need, that there is no welfare provision for them, ruined homes and thin children. All of that shows the regime up,” she said.

KavKazia, an international coalition of journalists, has written to the Uzbek authorities urging them to cease the persecution of Ahmedova immediately. The letter was signed by journalists and TV reporters from the Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakstan, Denmark and Germany. In its annual report, entitled “Freedom in the World 2010: Global Erosion of Freedom”, the United States-based watchdog Freedom House listed Uzbekistan among the nine least free countries worldwide. Reporters Without Borders also ranked the country among the world’s most repressive states with regard to press freedom.

This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

By IWPR staff in Central Asia (RCA No. 601, 22-Jan-10)