- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, March 7 (UPI) — Correspondents for two federally funded American radio stations were beaten and robbed Friday in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, reportedly under the eyes of police.

Khusniddin Kutbiddinov of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America's Yusuf Rasulov, both Uzbek nationals, told United Press International that policemen stood by and watched the beating by a score of men and women.

The journalists had just interviewed women demonstrating in support of husbands and other male relatives jailed for supporting the Islamist Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation.

The government of President Islam Karimov has labeled Hizb-ut-Tahrir a terrorist organization that aims to overthrow the constitutional order. The group's members say they wish to bring about an Islamic regime in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the former Soviet Central Asia, but that they wish to do so by persuasion without violence.

Western observers said the outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir has wide support among the predominantly Muslim population of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic.

Under Karimov, the country is governed largely by officials, including the president, who were cadre of the formerly ruling Communist Party, the observers noted. Western analysts see the Karimov regime as corrupt and repressive.

The two journalists told UPI that when they arrived at the site of the protest near a bazaar in Tashkent's Old City, they encountered several demonstrators who told them police had forcibly taken away some 40 other women. The protestors had called for Karimov to step down and for an end to torture in prison.

After interviewing the women, the journalists came across a group of men some of whom were in police uniform. Several of their hands were covered with blood, Kutbiddinov said.

Rasulov asked the men where the detained women had been taken and why the men's hands were covered with blood, but was given no answer. Soon after, a gang of about 20 unknown people surrounded the journalists and began to beat them up.

"They kicked and punched us. At first men beat us, then the men held our hands and women beat us," Kutbiddinov said. "It lasted about 20 minutes."

About 10 policemen were watching but did not help the journalists. In reply to the journalists' appeal for help, one of the policemen said, "It serves you right!" Kutbiddinov said.

The assailants robbed the journalists of their recorders and their recordings of the women's protest before running off.

The attack on the correspondents for the two stations, which specialize in international news, was seen as the latest incident in a government campaign. The U.S. based organization, Human Rights Watch, described the campaign last week as an effort by the Uzbek authorities to throttle dissent by harassing and arresting journalists employed by non-governmental media.

Kadyr Yusupov, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry with whom representatives of foreign news media must be registered, told UPI that the ministry would investigate the incident.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in its report prepared in cooperation with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan issued last Sunday said it appeared a new wave of repression of journalists had started in Uzbekistan.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called harassment of journalists a serious violation of basic democratic principles and said the United States intended to hold the Karimov government to its commitment to a democratic transformation of Uzbekistan that includes respecting the independence of the media.

U.S. interest in Uzbekistan developed with the war in neighboring Afghanistan against the militant Islamist Taliban regime and the Qaida terrorist network, headed by Osama bin Laden.

Among journalists arrested in February were Tokhtamurad Toshev, chief editor of the newspaper Adolat (Justice), Ergash Bobojonov and Oleg Sarapulov. Bobojonov, a member of the pro-democracy Birlik (Unity) movement, and Sarapulov were subsequently released.

Ghairat Mekhliboev, believed to be a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, was arrested last July but only sentenced on Feb. 18 to seven years in prison for allegedly inciting religious intolerance, attempting to undermine the state system and participating in mass unrest. Mekhliboev

Proceedings have also been opened against two other journalists, Lutfillo Mamasoliev and Olim Toshev, according to a prominent editor, Ismat Khushev whose newspaper was closed down on Feb. 21.

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