UPDATED: Ukraine Frees Detained Uzbek Journalist
5 October, 2017

Narzullo Okhunjonov, an Uzbek journalist wanted by the government of Uzbekistan, has walked free from a Kyiv detention center, where he spent the last 29 days.

“He is at home now. He was freed today after lunchtime – we picked him up around 1 p.m.,” Okhunjonov’s lawyer, Oleksiy Fedorov, said on October 18, according to the Ukrainian non-government organization The Institute of Mass Information.

Okhunjonov never thought that he would be in danger in Ukraine. In 2013, the journalist and his family fled their native Uzbekistan to avoid political persecution. After four years in Turkey, they came to Kyiv, where they hoped to find a refuge. Instead, Okhunjonov was detained and arrested at Kyiv’s Zhuliany airport, where he arrived on September 20, after the Ukrainian authorities discovered his name on an Interpol wanted list.

Okhunjonov was then supposed to spend 40 days at a Kyiv detention center until the authorities could decide whether there were grounds to extradite him to Uzbekistan — a country where he would likely face imprisonment and torture.

However, he was released from the detention center 11 days early by a decision of the Kyiv prosecutor’s office, Fedorov said. The lawyer does not have any further details of the decision yet.

Fedorov also drew attention to Okhunjonov’s deteriorating health.

“[He has] very serious health problems because he lost his vision. Today he can hardly move around [on his own],” Fedorov told Ukraine’s Channel 5.

Why did Okhunzhonov flee his native Uzbekistan?

Back in Uzbekistan, Okhunjonov worked for his country’s state-run broadcaster, UzMTRK, where he headed a division covering politics and education. But he ran into trouble for his independent-mindedness. First he was given a warning and then he was fired.

The trouble began when Okhunjonov came to the defense of Bekzod Rakhimboev, an Uzbek kickboxing champion accused of rape. While investigating the case, he discovered that the accusations were fabricated. Okhunjonov invited the kickboxer’s mother onto one of his shows, where she criticized the country’s justice system. “There is no justice in Uzbekistan,” she said.

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After that, Okhunjonov left Uzbekistan together with his wife and five children.“My father didn’t steal thousands of dollars from anyone. His friends told him that this is a set-up. And if he is convicted, he won’t survive,” his 16-year-old daughter Farzona told Hromadske.“The National Security Service told him that if he doesn’t shut his mouth and if he won’t stop denouncing the government, they will open new investigations against him to put him in jail.”  After the segment aired in 2013, a criminal fraud investigation was opened against the journalist. Two strangers came to Okhunjonov’s office one day and said that, in 2009, he had stolen $2000 from each of them. Okhunjonov asks: “If I stole their money in 2009, why are they only bringing this up in 2013?”

After that, Okhunjonov left Uzbekistan together with his wife and five children. “My father didn’t steal thousands of dollars from anyone. His friends told him that this is a set-up. And if he is convicted, he won’t survive,” his 16-year-old daughter Farzona told Hromadske. “The National Security Service told him that if he doesn’t shut his mouth and if he won’t stop denouncing the government, they will open new investigations against him to put him in jail.”  

Why did Okhunjonov flee Turkey?

After arriving in Turkey, Orkhunjonov continued working as a journalist. He wrote for the BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He also collaborated with the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan and he wrote a book about corruption in his native country.

According to Farzona, even in Turkey, Okhunjonov faced constant threats. He received anonymous phone calls from people trying to convince him to return to Uzbekistan.

One day, Farzona was even poisoned during lunch hour at school in circumstances that remain unclear.

“One day, I suddenly experienced a bad headache and stomach pains. I was sent to the hospital and spent three days in intensive care. Someone had secretly given me soon [poisonous] pills,” she said.

Farzona says her parents are not in good health. “Mother has problems with her spine, she can’t walk well and needs surgery. Dad has cataracts in both eyes,” she explains. Were it not for her parents’ health and the threats, they would have stayed in Turkey. But one of Okhunjonov’s friend suggested they relocate to Ukraine.

Why did they flee to Ukraine?

“My father’s friends said that apparently we wouldn’t have to wait long to receive refugee status [in Ukraine],” Farzona says. “In Turkey, we were told that we would get an answer in a year but we waited for four in vain.”

“In Turkey, there was no social support for us. Friends told us that Ukraine should be better for this,” she adds.

But when they arrived, Okhunjonov was arrested.

Why was Okhunjonov detained in Ukraine?

According to his lawyer, Oleksiy Fedorov, Okhunjonov never knew he was wanted by Interpol. “He left Uzbekistan in November 2013 and was added to the list in 2014,” the lawyer says.

Okhunjonov only learned he was wanted when he arrived at Zhuliany airport. “At Ankara airport, no one mentioned this. But, in Kyiv, he was suddenly detained and told that [Uzbekistan] had filed a request with Interpol,” confirms Farzona.

Photo credit: Refat Chubarov

During their time in Turkey, Okhunjonov was told that he could return to Uzbekistan and live safely with his family, Farzona says. However, after learning of the Interpol warrant, she now understands that this was deception.

“If they extradite my father, the best scenario is that he ends up in prison,” Farzona says. “If the Ukrainian authorities extradite him, he won’t live longer than three days. The Uzbek authorities want to take revenge on dad for his journalistic work. They want to shut him up.”

Will Okhunjonov be extradited?

“When he landed in Kyiv’s airport, he had an application for refugee status. But instead of summoning the migration service, the border guards called the police and decided to arrest him,” says lawyer Fedorov.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office will make the final decision on Okhunjonov’s fate. According to law, the country must receive an extradition request from Uzbekistan within forty days after September 20, which is when the Kyiv court approved his 40-day detention period. The Prosecutor General’s office will then determine whether there are grounds to return Okhunjonov to Uzbekistan.

“He has been asked to come to the migration service tomorrow at 2 p.m.,” Fedorov told Hromadske on October 19, “But we will not find out the actual decision for some time because we have not yet received an extradition request from Uzbekistan as far as I’m aware.”

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The State Migration Service declined to comment on Okhunjonov’s chances of receiving refugee status. However, a representative told Hromadske that being on Interpol’s wanted list is not a deciding factor for accepting or denying an individual's request. All the possible ground for receiving refugee status are considered together, the representative said.  

Fedorov is convinced Okhunjonov has all the necessary documents to stay in Ukraine.

In Turkey, Okhunjonov was under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — then Antonio Guterres, who is the current UN Secretary General. He had an official document stating that he faced persecution by the Uzbek authorities.

Fedorov adds that documents from the BBC and Reporters Without Borders describe Okhunjonov as a journalist being persecuted by Uzbekistan. He also cites international agreements like the UN Convention Against Torture that should prevent the journalist from being extradited. The Convention does not permit an individual to be extradited to a country where he or she might be at risk of torture — a practice widespread in Uzbekistan, according to Amnesty International.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also spoken out in defense of Okhunjonov:

“We call on the Ukrainian government to free Narzullo Okhunjonov, allow him to remain in Ukraine, and reject any requests to extradite him,” said CPJ Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia Nina Ognianova.

According to Fedorov, much will depend on the relations between Kyiv and Tashkent.

“This is politically motivated persecution. It’s difficult for me to say how the authorities in Ukraine cooperate with their counterparts in Uzbekistan,” he says. “[Okhunjonov] has all the legal grounds to not be extradited.”

/By Maria Romanenko and Tanya Bednarchyk