UPDATE: Uzbekistan: Akhmedova granted amnesty in honour of Uzbek independence day

The New York Times/Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty

How can a photographer defame her country? Uzbekistan tried to answer that question this week in a slander trial that harked back to the days of Soviet censorship. The answer, in part: by showing people with sour expressions or bowed heads, children in ragged clothing, old people begging for change or other images so dreary that, according to a panel of experts convened by the prosecutors, “a foreigner unfamiliar with Uzbekistan will conclude that this is a country where people live in the Middle Ages.” Umida Akhmedova, a photographer and documentary filmmaker, was found guilty on Wednesday of slandering and insulting the Uzbek people, in a case that has stirred outrage in artistic circles throughout the region. Though the charges carried a prison sentence of up to three years, the judge waived the penalties, saying that Ms. Akhmedova had been granted an amnesty in honor of the 18th anniversary of Uzbek independence. Update on Uzbekistan: Ahmedova charged with defamation against Uzbek nation

After the verdict, Ms. Akhmedova said she had been so deeply shaken by the prosecution that, even as she walked away free, it was difficult to feel relief.

(Photos below courtesy of RFERL - please see link below for more images)

“I can’t say my anxiety has subsided, I can’t say I’m suddenly O.K.,” she said. “There was a fear of going to prison. But to tell you the truth, I feel insulted, that’s the main thing. I still don’t understand how my creative work could have brought me to this courtroom.”
Asked if she expected to be able to publish her photography in Uzbekistan in the future, she said, “I am afraid not.”

Ms. Akhmedova said she intended to appeal the conviction.

The Uzbek authorities have, in the past, prosecuted artists who openly took on politically charged themes, like the folk singer Dadakhon Khasanov, who wrote a song about the 2005 crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijon, in which hundreds are thought to have died. But the case against Ms. Akhmedova breaks ground by singling out an apparently apolitical visual artist for her work.

At issue are “Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk,” a book published in 2007, and “The Burden of Virginity,” a documentary film released the following year. Both projects were supported by grants from the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital.

An analysis written by six government experts declares that the film, which explores the tradition of checking a new bride’s virginity, is “not in line with the requirements of ideology,” and that it “promotes serious perversion in the young generation’s acceptance of cultural values.” In an exhaustive criminal complaint, prosecutors argued that Ms. Akhmedova’s photographs intentionally showed Uzbek village life in an unflattering light, as in one photograph that shows a young boy lying on the mud floor of a spare-looking house.

“With one glance at these pictures one can see that repair work is being done in these rooms, and that the children entered them purely through the childish curiosity that is inherent to them,” the complaint reads. “But to foreigners, these photographs may give the impression that these children live in these homes.”

In all the photographs, “the images of the human face seem sad and anxious, they are portrayed against an excessively pathetic background,” it says. “This vision excludes the beautiful landscape of our homeland, the remarkable spaces of our cities.”

An employee of the Uzbek general prosecutor’s press office said that only his manager was authorized to comment and that the manager’s position was at present unfilled.

The charges prompted widespread protest among fellow photographers, who circulated petitions in Ms. Akhmedova’s defense and have organized exhibits of her work in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Daniil Kislov, editor in chief of the Web site ferghana.ru, which has followed the case avidly as part of its coverage of Central Asian events, said he believed that the publicity prompted the authorities to grant Ms. Akhmedova amnesty on Wednesday.

“This case was supposed to be an example to the rest of them — to photographers, artists and so on — so they know they need to portray reality the way it looks to the government,” Mr. Kislov said. But as Russian media picked up the story, it became clear that the case reflected badly on Uzbek officials.

“They really care about opinions in Moscow, from that cultured Moscow crowd, and they understood they had crossed a line,” he said.

Notably quiet were Ms. Akhmedova’s colleagues from Uzbekistan. Vyacheslav Akhunov, who lives in Tashkent and frequently exhibits his installations and video projects overseas, said artists in Uzbekistan were overwhelmingly dependent on the state to show and sell their work.

“The authorities want to show a rosy-cheeked face, a beautiful face, as if the wise rulers rule so well that nothing will ever happen,” he said. “And 99 percent of artists are afraid to get involved in anything problematic.”


February 11, 2010