(Berlin) – A city court in Uzbekistan’s capital on May 7, 2018, convicted a freelance reporter for calling for the overthrow of the government, but did not sentence him to prison, Human Rights Watch said today. The verdict, at the end of a high-profile trial, requires the reporter. Bobomurod Abdullaev, to pay 20 percent of his income to the government for three years for “infringing the country’s constitutional order,” a much milder sentence than many observers had expected.

The court freed Abdullaev from pretrial detention, and quashed the charges against his three co-defendants, including Hayot Nasriddinov, a well-known economist and blogger. It also ordered an investigation into alleged abuses of Abdullaev in detention by the State Security Service, known as the SNB.

“It is heartening to see Bobomurod Abdullaev reunited with his family and friends” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a concern that he was convicted for simply doing his job, but the verdict was also in some ways a positive signal for freedom of expression in Uzbekistan.”

President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who took power in 2016, has pledged to protect freedom of expression, among other human rights reforms. While there have been some recent improvements in media freedom, heavy censorship and intimidation of journalists remain serious concerns.

Abdullaev, 45, has worked for Fergana news agency and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), among other publications. He was detained on September 27, 2017, in Tashkent, the capital, by the SNB on charges of “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime,” which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The authorities accused Abdullaev of writing “extremist” articles and of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government, along with Nasriddinov and two other people.

Abdullaev’s prosecution was marred by procedural violations. There was credible evidence that he was repeatedly tortured in detention, and he was denied access to a legal counsel of his choosing and had only restricted visits from family members, in violation of his constitutional rights.

In court, Abdullaev described in detail torture and other ill-treatment he was subjected to in the days after his arrest. He said that he was kept in a freezing jail cell naked for three days, was forced to remain standing for six days and nights, was not allowed to sleep, and was deprived of food for five days. He also said that SNB officers instructed other inmates to beat him with a plastic pipe on his left hand and back.

SNB officials also intimidated Abdullaev’s first attorney and would not let her meet with him. In November, Abdullaev hired Sergey Mayorov, a human rights lawyer, who was allowed to meet with him on December 14 in the presence of the SNB detective overseeing the case. The SNB later allegedly forced Abdullaev to fire Mayorov.

On February 14, a number of international organizations called on Uzbek authorities to investigate Abdullaev’s torture allegations and immediately release him.

Abdullaev’s trial is among the first such high-profile court procedure since Mirziyoev became president and was itself an important test case for freedom of expression and media freedom in Uzbekistan. The trial began on March 7 and was open to the general public, media, human rights defenders, and diplomats. Human Rights Watch staff monitored the trial for a few days in March, the first trial it was able to monitor in Uzbekistan for years.

Despite the serious concerns about Abdullaev’s prosecution, the openness and accessibility of the trial itself is an important sign of the Uzbekistan government’s commitment to uphold its human rights and due process obligations, and hopefully reflects the norm for future trials, Human Rights Watch said.

At the trial on May 2, the prosecutors revised the charges against Abdullaev from “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime” to “infringing the country’s constitutional order” under article 159(3) of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code and requested a five-year maximum sentence. The prosecution also asked the court to acquit his co-defendants. Abdullaev said he did not plan to contest the court ruling.

On May 7, the court also issued an order for the SNB to conduct an internal investigation into its actions during Abdullaev’s detention and to take measures to strictly comply with the Criminal Procedural Code.

Other people remain imprisoned in Uzbekistan for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, however. For example, Akrom Malikov, a researcher at Uzbekistan’s Institute of Handicrafts of the Academy of Sciences, was detained in July 2016 on extremism charges for allegedly writing articles for the opposition People’s Movement of Uzbekistan under a pseudonym. He is currently serving a six-year sentence and was also questioned and implicated in the Abdullaev case.

“Uzbekistan should build on the positive elements arising from this case” Williamson said. “It should send a clear message that no one in Uzbekistan will be punished for free speech, such as criticizing the authorities”.