On November 10th the German journalist Edda Schlager, currently residing in Kazakhstan, was detained in Tashkent and then deported the next day. She arrived in Uzbekistan to report on the situation in the country after Karimov’s death and before the new presidential election in which a new president will be elected to run the country for the first time in more than a quarter of a century. Edda reported on the latest developments in the country to the Uzbek journalist Aleksey Volosevich:
I’m a freelance journalist from Germany, and I have been working in Central Asia for more than ten years. In November I decided to visit Uzbekistan since I hadn’t been there since 2008. I wanted to know about the general atmosphere in the country and society’s mood before the presidential election on December 4th.
It is well known that the Uzbek Foreign Ministry does not like to give accreditations to foreign journalists. Getting an accreditation is virtually impossible, especially if the trip has not been agreed by the highest political elite. And as you know, journalists don’t usually write only about the Silk Road and the beauty of the country…
So I decided to take the riskier decision and travel to Uzbekistan with a tourist visa. I had a tape recorder with me and I collaborated with German, Austrian and Swiss radio channels. I was well aware of the high risk I was going to expose myself to. On the day of my arrival in the country I had no problems at all and I quietly began to work. I planned to spend a few days in Tashkent before moving to the Ferghana Valley and Samarkand.
I spent time in Tashkent between November 3rd and 10th. There I met with various people (journalists, artists, political analysts), recorded a series of interviews and did some sightseeing. I managed to literally breathe the atmosphere of this city and of this country. It was very impressive, but not in a good way.
It is obvious that Uzbekistan lags behind its neighbouring countries in economic terms, that Uzbek society lives in fear and that the country is a police state. Everyone is aware of that; dissidents and civil society activists are constantly threatened by the state and Uzbek citizens wish only one thing: to live their simple lives.
On November 10th I ran into trouble and experienced how the repression of unwanted persons in Uzbekistan works – of course, in a more moderate way, since I was still a foreigner.
That day I wanted to go from Tashkent to Fergana. But at 7 am the receptionist called me and asked me to leave: officers of the authorities were waiting for me in order to verify my documents. I went out to the hall where there were four men waiting for me. As I understood, they were both policemen and SNB (National Security Service).
They told me to collect my valuables and go with them to the Visa Office. I took everything with me, since I did not want to give them the opportunity to search through my luggage. I didn’t even have breakfast. I called a German friend of mine living in Tashkent and he gave me the phone number of the German Embassy. I tried to call the Embassy but couldn’t get through.
We went to the police station of the Yakkasaroy region in Tashkent by taxi. The driver, a policeman and myself went in the taxi and the others in another car.
I waited on the second floor from 8 to 10 o’clock in the morning, waiting to be called in for interrogation. I asked to use the toilet once and they agreed. Then someone accompanied me to the toilet through a door in the backyard where about 80 uniformed policemen were parading. There was no toilet in the building.
10 minutes later I was beckoned into the room and they began to question me. A police officer or criminal investigator named Akmal conducted the interrogation. He was wearing civilian clothes. Different people were constantly entering the room. Among them was also the police officer Bobur Beknazarov.
Bobur and Akmal interrogated me until the evening. They asked questions about what I was doing in Uzbekistan, who I was meeting with, etc. At first I said I was a tourist and that I was re-tracing my parents’ footsteps, since they had visited Uzbekistan once. They asked for my camera but did not find anything interesting in it except for some images of the city. In the evening I found out that they had removed all those photos as well.
At some point they said: “We were told that you own a tape recorder.” Before that, I had told them several times that I did not own it. In the end I admitted having one which I used to listen to music. They asked for the SD card which I gave them. The first card was empty and they became quite frustrated when they found out that there was only music in the second one.
They already knew that I was working as a journalist in Tashkent and that I had collected materials. They began to ask me again whom I had met with and why. They looked very disappointed that they could not find what they wanted.
Then they asked me to give them my laptop. I gave it to them. They asked me for the password. I switched on the computer by myself in order not to disclose my password. They started to check my computer and offered me tea and biscuits. It was now afternoon.
Then they managed to find the audio files and the interviews with Oleg Karpov (filmmaker, researcher dealing with Uzbek photography – AsiaTerra). They did not have anything to say about all the other recordings, since all that could be heard was some noise from the streets and some conversations among people on Tashkent’s “Broadway”.
In addition, they found a list of my contacts, including the names of people with whom I was acquainted by Facebook only. They copied everything on their flash drive.
I had my mobile phone with me all the time and I could have easily charged it, posted on Facebook and talked to people in Germany or with the representatives of the German Embassy. They did not take it away from me, they did not forbid me to use it, and they did not touch anything except the camera, the voice recorder, the card and the laptop, which I was “voluntarily” forced to give them.
I had some hard disks and other media files with photos and audio recordings in my backpacks. I had managed to store some of the materials on the Internet, but not everything. However, they stopped to search further as soon as they found something in my notebook they were interested in.
At about 4.30 pm I got a call and was told that the German consul and the translator from the Embassy were just in front of the police station and were asking the authorities to let them visit me. They were refused entry for the next hour and a half.
I had to write an “explanatory letter”, which then needed to be translated from English into Russian. It took a long time. Almost everyone was gone. Only Akmal, Bobur, the translator and the security service officers, whom I understood to be the head of the “operation” were there.
I said that I was not going to sign anything until they would allow me to meet with the consul. The battery on my laptop had run out. They asked me to give them the charger, but I answered that I was not going to do anything else before seeing the consul. Finally, at about 5.30 – 6 pm, they let them in. Obviously, the “enforcement” officers had got tired as well and started to act in a more moderate way.
At the same time, my immediate future became clear: the trial was going to be held sometime the same evening and I would subsequently be deported. It was clear that they wanted to get rid of me.
I got all my things back, collected my luggage and we went to the court in the Yakkasaroy region in Tashkent. I sat in the consul’s car while Akmal and Bobur were on their own.
The trial, which took about twenty minutes, was in Russian. The verdict: I did not receive a monetary penalty, “because you’re a woman, you are our guest and because your father died last year.” Oh, and I have been banned from entering Uzbekistan for the next three years.
After this, I was offered help to book a flight to Kazakhstan but I said I would do it myself. Then the Consul took me to the hotel where I was able to upload the remaining files to the Internet.
The next day, on November 11th, Akmal, a woman and a translator from the German Embassy took me to the airport. I only got my passport back when I reached passport control. Akmal had taken my passport the previous day. I went through all the other checks at the airport without any problems.
My detention has passed, in principle, peacefully. I was not touched, I was not beaten. I remained calm, did not panic (not too much), and was always polite. They were polite too. As I understood, they would have searched until they found something useful for them. They needed to find something after all.
Someone clearly told them that I was working as a journalist. I believe that it was one of my interviewees who said that, but perhaps also someone at the hotel. It is possible that they were listening at my door. Staff at the hotel saw what kind of people I met with and who I let into my room.
It was only later that I learned that it was thanks to the organization “Reporters Without Borders” which held talks with the Foreign Ministry of Germany and Uzbekistan, that I got released.
I’m sorry for all the individual records which were confiscated by the authorities during my detention. Among the records, there were interviews with Oleg Karpov in which he sharply criticized the government, and contact details of people I had been in touch with. I am now back in Kazakhstan. I am safe, but all these people remain in Uzbekistan and I am worried about them.”
In recent years, Uzbekistan has deported several prominent people who were said to be in possession of sensitive materials about the Uzbek authorities or about the situation in the country. They were put on a secret “blacklist”. In 2003, the Russian human rights activist Nikolai Mitrokhin was exiled from the country; In 2005 the same happened to the international journalist Igor Rotar; in 2012 it was the turn of the BBC correspondent Natalia Antelava and the Russian journalist Victoria Ivlev; in 2014 the Moscow photographer Constantine Salomatin was exiled; in 2015 the same happened to the Russian anthropologist and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg, Sergei Abashin. None of them was given a clear reason for their deportation.
Alexey Volosevich, Tashkent, http://www.asiaterra.info/obshchestvo/iz-uzbekistana-deportirovali-nemetskuyu-zhurnalistku-eddu-shlager
Edda Schlager also shared her impressions with the Uzbek-German Forum (UGF) about her recent visit to Uzbekistan
From November 3, I came to Uzbekistan with a tourist visa because it is difficult to get a business visa or an accreditation as a journalist. I decided to travel as a tourist because I wanted to get a feeling for the atmosphere in the country. I also work for German public radio and therefore had to make recordings on a dictating machine.
Someone probably noticed that I was working with a voice recorder and doing interviews. I do not know who saw it and passed the information to the authorities. I will probably never know.
I spent one week in Tashkent and planned to travel to the Ferghana Valley on Thursday, 11th November. However, at 7 o’clock in the morning, representatives of the Uzbek authorities visited me at my hotel and politely asked me to go with them to some office. I was asked to pack up my things and then we all got in a taxi.
The purpose of my trip to Uzbekistan
I have been to Uzbekistan before as I have been working as a journalist in Central Asia for more than 10 years and in general, I am aware of what is happening in Uzbekistan. This time I wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere after Karimov’s death and to see what changes this could bring and what impact it could have on people’s lives and how people in Uzbekistan felt today.
The state does occasionally issue accreditation to journalists, but it takes a long time to negotiate and I am sure that, with the questions I had in mind, I would not have been given an accreditation.
Impressions of Uzbekistan
I come from the former GDR. I well remember how we lived in the GDR. There was the same atmosphere and tension that I felt in Uzbekistan. For example, when you talk to ordinary people in the market and ask them simple questions about their lives, you get strange answers like: “What kind of suspicious questions are you asking?”. Distrust is a constant companion. Fear and distrust.
I have the impression that this is comparable with North Korea, maybe it is not so bad and not so difficult, but it is similar. There are no people on the streets, even on a Sunday or when the weather is nice, people do not walk around outside. It was a strange feeling not to see people enjoying life. Maybe because I was in a special situation – this of course also plays a role. If you are only travelling as a tourist you might get a different impression of the country – people say how beautiful Uzbekistan is, how delicious the pilav (uzbek food) is. I approached the country as a journalist, I have eyes and ears, and I could feel this atmosphere. I was afraid that people in Uzbekistan might think that everything was very good there. The most important expression seemed to be: “There is no war” – I heard this phrase so many times. Now I’m starting to worry about my friends in Uzbekistan. It hurts me that my friends and colleagues are still there and that they might be in trouble because of my work.