The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers has awarded jailed Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov with the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom and urged officials to release him. "The award...recognizes Mr. Sharipov's outstanding defense and promotion of press freedom in the face of constant physical danger, prison, and censorship," the group said in a statement released Tuesday. "His refusal to censor himself, even in the face of intimidation, prison, and torture, is a courageous act that is an inspiration to journalists and human rights everywhere."
Sharipov, 25, who is openly gay, is serving a four-year prison term for having homosexual sex--illegal in Uzbekistan under laws still on the books from Soviet times--and also of having sex with minors. He was sentenced in August. Sharipov leads an independent group that focuses on media freedom. His conviction has drawn much attention from international media and human rights groups who have demanded his immediate release, saying he is being persecuted for his criticism of the government. Independent journalists in Uzbekistan often face fabricated legal charges and harassment, and the media remains restrained by heavy self-censorship. The former Soviet republic in Central Asia has long drawn international criticism for widespread human rights abuses and lack of freedom. But as Afghanistan's neighbor, Uzbekistan is a key U.S. regional ally in the war on terrorism and hosts hundreds of U.S. troops.