‘Harassment’ forces BBC out of Uzbekistan

By Nick Paton Walsh writing in The Guardian

The BBC yesterday said it would close its World Service operation in the central Asian state of Uzbekistan, citing harassment by local officials. The foreign media have been under increasing pressure in the authoritarian state since the massacre of at least 500 protesters by Uzbek troops in the southern town of Andijan.

Fifteen men went on trial last month for organising the unrest. Prosecutors yesterday asked the alleged “terrorists” to be sentenced for up to 20 years, and at the start of the trial had claimed the men had been advised during the unrest by the BBC.

A BBC statement said: “The BBC World Service’s office in Tashkent is being suspended and all local staff withdrawn with immediate effect for six months pending a decision on their longer-term future. We are doing this over concerns of security.” The BBC World Service regional head, Behrouz Afagh, said that during the four months since Andijan, staff had been subjected to “a campaign of harassment and intimidation”.

In June, the BBC added, its correspondent, Monica Whitlock, was forced to leave the capital “under government pressure” after she was accused of breaking unspecified laws for her reports on Andijan.

Six other staff members have since left, two of whom have been classified as refugees by the UN. The BBC retains a monitoring office but has no correspondents in the country.

Yesterday it also emerged that Sanjar Umarov, chairman of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, who was arrested on Sunday for alleged embezzlement, had shown signs of having been tortured in jail. His lawyer said that he saw Mr Umarov naked, swaying back and forth in his cell. “He threw all his clothes out into the feeding slot and didn’t react to my words,” Valery Krasilovsky told Associated Press.