November 27, 2019 / 12:51 PM / 15 days ago

Uzbekistan decides against charges over mayor's threats against journalists

FILE PHOTO: Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev arrives for a meeting with China's president in Beijing, China, April 25, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

ALMATY (Reuters) - The Uzbek Prosecutor General’s office has decided not to press charges against the mayor of the capital city Tashkent over his threats to journalists but reprimanded both sides in a row that drew Western diplomatic attention.

The United States and Britain expressed concern over reports this month that Mayor Jahongir Artikhojayev told critical local reporters that he could make them disappear or frame them as homosexuals.

The remarks by U.S. and British diplomats amounted to rare public criticism of the tightly controlled ex-Soviet republic that has begun opening up its economy over the past three years.

The dispute, originally between news website Kun.uz and a lower-level municipal official, prompted a prosecutors’ inquiry after excerpts from an audio recording of a meeting between the journalists and Artikhojayev were published online.

On Wednesday, the Prosecutor General’s office said it found no reason to press criminal charges against the mayor, but asked the government to discipline him for breaching ethics rules.

It also said Kun.uz broke the law by secretly recording the meeting and then not destroying the tape, but once again issued no charges and instead asked the state media watchdog to look into the matter, meaning the outlet was likely to be fined.

Uzbekistan has sought to improve its human rights record since President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in late 2016 following the death of longtime autocrat Islam Karimov, but critics of the government still complain of harassment.

Mirziyoyev has not directly commented on the incident but said last week mayors and governors needed to abandon “old” approaches when dealing with media. Those who fail to do so and thus damage the country’s image will get sacked, he warned.

Senior U.S. State Department official Alice Wells said she was pleased to hear Mirziyoyev “condemn threats against the media”.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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