The Denver Post’s Astounding Coverage of the Mukhtarov Case

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by Joshua Foust on 3/16/2012 · 19 comments

The Denver Post has been following the saga of Uzbek refugee turned terror suspect Jamshid Muhtorov, since he settled in the U.S. in Aurora, a city next to Denver, Colorado (when I was doing my undergrad in Boulder, I would teach classes for the Princeton review in Aurora and Columbine, if you can believe it).

While the case itself remains under investigation — we have yet to see if the government is going to bring any non-circumstantial evidence forward — the coverage of said case, including the credulity given to the prosecution’s statements and publicly declared evidence in the press, is pretty surprising.

Last month, the Denver Post wrote a story about Muhtorov, which claimed in the headline that he knew he was going to go fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Post’s readers spotted the misleading title and left some angry comments, which prompted the DP to add in that the prosecution alleges Mukhtarov knew he would be fighting U.S. forces.

After writing several paragraphs detailing the prosecution’s claim that Muhtorov knew he was going to go help an organization fight U.S. forces, the DP finally gets around to noting that the prosecution won’t let Muhtorov’s defense know or discuss how the prosecution knows such a thing, because it is based on a witness whose identity is classified for national security reasons.

So Muhtorov is being held on secret evidence, including witness statements, that cannot be scrutinized or challenged because they’re secret. And rather than pointing out how interestingly Soviet this is, the DP instead ran a headline repeating what the prosecution said without challenge or skepticism.

The next day, the DP ran another story about Muhtorov, calling him too violent to release publicly — because the prosecution said so, and not, apparently, because he still isn’t charged with planning any violent attacks. But in this story the DP brings up a much more worrying charge by the prosecution, one which could have far-reaching (and damaging) implications for American-Uzbeks.

A prosecutor also asserts that Muhtorov may have misrepresented himself a human-rights activist and that he may have received refugee status on fake grounds.

There is no evidence that Muhtorov actually misrepresented himself as a human rights activist. As I presented at the time of his arrest, Muhtorov actually WAS a human rights activist in Uzbekistan, and later as a refugee in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Human Rights Watch wrote about Muhtorov’s struggle for basic rights in Uzbekistan in 2006. And the State Department certainly considered him a human rights activist in their 2005 Human Rights Report on Uzbekistan. Where are they getting this from?

Oh yeah — it was a paranoid personality disorder victim and renowned Internet troll, who is famous for conspiracy theories and paranoia, and was banned recently from the Registan.net threads for her gleeful slinging of false accusations of secret interests and regime sympathies. This renowned liar, lunatic, and fabulist has been on a tear about Muhtorov, and literally everything else anyone at this blog has ever discussed in the last few months — because I noted that Muhtorov had a history of activism, and because Sarah Kendzior (this troll’s favorite target) once mentioned knowing of him.

The prosecution’s response is that the years of documentation — including leaked State Department cables — that describe Muhtorov as a human rights activist are “questionable at best” because “some online articles” — that internet troll’s insane, novella-length rantings (which are indistinguishable from racist anti-immigrant bigots) — accused Muhtorov of faking everything.

Rather than noting that the prosecution is relying literally on crazy Internet people to build its case that Muhtorov is a terrorist, the DP just reported the allegations as if they make sense. As Sarah Kendzior noted last month, there are always rumors about activists describing each other as fakes — and accusing someone of being in the SNB, Uzbekistan’s nasty secret police service — is a great way to discredit someone.

It’s understandable that many Uzbek refugees don’t want to be associated with Muhtorov. They probably don’t have much in common. But it is ridiculous to say he wasn’t persecuted because any Uzbek even remotely associated with Ezuglik in 2005 would have been harshly persecuted. The Uzbek government doesn’t give sympathy because other human rights activists don’t like you anymore!

Repeating rumors on the Internet to defame a man on trial is shameful for the prosecution. It is unethical for a newspaper like the Denver Post. They should apologize.

The Muhtorov case itself remains in a bizarre state of publicly resting on basically criminalizing Internet use. Another man, this one from Philadelphia, has been arrested in connection to Muhtorov. His crimes, literally, are sending Muhtorov $300 a few months ago for that wedding prosecutors insist was really terrorism and posting some pro-IJU comments on a YouTube video.

That’s enough to get you arrested today.

The DP covered this latest arrest a bit better — they actually noted that the prosecution doesn’t say what the $300 was for (though they allege higher in the story that it was to “fund the Islamic Jihad Union”), and that not even the prosecution can assert that either man actually planned to engage in violence abroad or against U.S. forces.

Sarah Stuteville wrote in 2006 the only English-language interview with Jamshid Muhtorov. She posted a column at The Globalist recently about her trouble with the latest round of terror arrests:

Misunderstandings can have deep and terrifying consequences in a post-911 world. I should know, I’m working on a feature-length documentary called Barzan about an Iraqi-American from Kirkland who says his life was destroyed by one unlucky brush with an Al Qaeda contact at Northgate Mall…

My friends and family started making fun of me:

“So, is this is the second or third terror suspect that you’ve interviewed now? I can’t remember,” said one, “I’m thinking ‘no fly list’ for you Miss,” said another.

This isn’t just an example of imperfectly pursuing justice. A false charge of terrorism can permanently ruin a person’s life — and when terrorism cases are built on hearsay, internet comments, crazed lunatics posting 6,000 word anger-rants about some writers she dislikes, and secret evidence… well that gives me a lot of pause.

We don’t know if Muhtorov or the new guy, Bakhtiyor Jumaev, wanted to join the IJU or not. They both seem to have adopted clothing styles that indicate a more fundamental, conservative Muslim faith, and they’ve said things complimentary of a terror group online. But wearing clothes and leaving comments online is not a crime! And that says nothing about who they are or what they planned to do. And being dark skinned and having foreign, Muslimy names makes them instantly unsympathetic to a depressing number of American jurors.

When unsympathetic people are put on trial, it is usually up to the journalists covering the case to try to present the information fairly to the public so it doesn’t become a trial-by-unpopularity. The case against Muhtorov and Jumaev is so thin as to be practically non-existent without secret evidence; it is highly unlikely the prosecution will declassify said secret evidence for a public trial. That leaves either a trial on flimsy, circumstantial internet behavior for a pre-crime or thought-crime, or it leaves a secret, unchallengeable trial with secret evidence no one can scrutinize.

Such a bizarre, Soviet method of justice should concern people — especially journalists. But that hasn’t crept much into the Denver Post’s coverage of the case so far. Rather, they seem content to run headlines and ledes repeating the prosecution’s allegations without mentioning very much or very often just how weak it is. And Jamshid Muhtorov, who deserves a fair trial, probably won’t get one.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 19 comments }

joshkamiller March 16, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Isn’t “wedding” standard lingo in the Strunk & White Elements of Terrorist Code?

Setting aside the other issues of secretive evidence and hyped up implications based on speculation and sensationalism (being an Aurora resident I can say we need all the sensation we can get), isn’t the “wedding” the one piece of semi-damning evidence? While certainly possible he was indeed going to a wedding, that is a classic term used for non-wedding endeavors.

I get the point that we need to be concerned about due process and not giving in to fear and hype, I totally agree. You’re trying to draw the line between commenting (legal) and plotting (illegal). That’s good. Circumstantial evidence is a sketchy business, but the amount of duck-like walking and talking that is known at least makes this guy a concern (I tried to shoehorn “nuclear duck” in there, but it just wasn’t working). And if there is a concern, shouldn’t the authorities address it?

Joshua Foust March 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Joshka,

Sometimes a wedding is just a wedding. Just as a bearded man in Pakistan might really just be a butcher — not of people, but of food animals. We read into these things what we want to.

joshkamiller March 16, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Well that’s where some context would be helpful. A full transcription of the phone call would clear that up for both sides. That said, if Mukhtarov was known to post comments supporting the legalization of marijuana and then was later given $300 for a “weed” would you really assume he meant dandelions?

The onus is on the prosecution to provide the details but you have to admit that Mukhtarov is throwing up red flags.

Joshua Foust March 16, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I disagree. Central Asians give each other gifts all the time, especially lavish ones for weddings. There isn’t anything unusual about one expat Uzbek giving another expat Uzbek money — especially not when discussing a wedding.

joshkamiller March 16, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Huh. It’s almost as if there isn’t enough information to make a reasonable judgment. Then again, it’s not our job to make a judgment (although I guess I could be called to jury duty).

The guy listening in on the conversation certainly felt something was up and convinced his peers it was true. Could he be wrong? Absolutely. Could he be right? Absolutely. The Post jumped to conclusions (because seriously, it’s Denver, the most interesting thing out here is the lizard people under the airport). Shame on them.

Setting aside the lack of transparency and the fear mongering in this case, what does your gut tell you? You can’t build a case on a gut feeling and you’ve proven that you can very reasonably explain away the circumstantial evidence, but what do you think? I won’t tell anyone.

starbro March 17, 2012 at 12:47 am

The fact that you use dp as your argumentative foil spoils this article. Dp is best read for local pet crimes, not serious news.

Dan Kislov March 18, 2012 at 4:43 am

Read about the which sort of human rights activist Mukhtorov was http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=2744 and which kind of friends he had

Joshua Foust March 18, 2012 at 6:53 pm

Dan,

This proves my point that many in the Uzbek diaspora don’t want to be associated with Mukhtorov. Needless to say, this is nothing more than rumors and a few bits of innuendo that say nothing of what his real friends were, who his associates were, or what he was like whilst living in Osh.

A reader March 18, 2012 at 7:11 pm

I did read on Ferghana.ru what kind of activist he was — right here:

http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=1219

Joshua Foust March 18, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Considering Ferghana.ru is the source of much of the early news of Muhtorov’s activism, I’m curious why they’re suddenly s eager to report the opposite. We’re they wrong in 2005?

Nathan Hamm March 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Not just report, but to plea for investigators to take notice.

Alima Bissenova March 19, 2012 at 5:12 pm

“We are strongly hopeful this information would be of interest for the American authorities.”

I wonder if they also bring information to the attention of Uzbek authorities in the same manner…or they serve only the “great masters” of the “war on terror”…

Metin March 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm

ferghana.ru is more like yellow press – any news, proven or not, that attracts readers will appear there. This might explain the lack of consistency in its reporting. Besides, its website is full of annoying ads.

jonathan p March 19, 2012 at 5:40 pm

There is circumstantial evidence piling up on both sides, clearly, but the real story here is the U.S. government’s handling of a suspected case of colusion with the “bad guys.” Mr. Foust calls this “bizarre” and “Soviet.” Unfortunately, this behavior can also be called “lawful” and “authorized by Congress,” according to the National Defense Authorization Act, Title X, Subtitle D.
Makes me want to puke, honestly.

Herschel Smith March 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm

Well, Josh, I’m not particularly a fan of the patriot act for a variety of reasons. And I don’t know that this was invoked by the prosecutors. But to say that you aren’t aware of the evidence and that the MSM didn’t give an adequate narrative of the evidence isn’t the same thing as saying that the evidence doesn’t exist.

There would seem to be more to this story than we have heard thus far.

jz adams March 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm

I just want to point out a really big coincidence, unless I am crazy – which I might be. In the HRW link you reference, the article discusses Jamshid Muhktorov and an Ulugbek Khaidorov. Ironically, another “Ulugbek Kodirov” was indicted in 2011 of plans to assassinate the President ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14304630). No, that is NOT a particularly common name. I like coincidences, that’s all.

Joshua Foust March 26, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Or we could put on our thinking caps (a.k.a. “Google“), Jacob, and see that the Ulugbek Khaidorov mentioned in HRW was an independent journalist. From Amnesty International:

Ulugbek Khaidarov, an independent journalist from Dzhizzakh, who contributes to two opposition websites, http://www.ferghana.ru and http://www.centrasia.ru, was attacked on the evening of 26 June in Karshi, some 200 metres from the home of Tulkin Karaev, whom he was going to meet. According to RSF, two unidentified men accosted him, hit and beat him about the head. After he fell to the ground, they reportedly kicked him, saying: “What are you doing in Karshi? Get back where you came from!” Passers-by, who were alerted by the noise, drove off the attackers. Ulugbek Khaidarov returned to his home in Dzhizzakh the following day.

Using this same thinking cap (a.k.a. “Google“), we can also see that the Ulugbek Kodirov convicted of threatening President Obama is 22, came here in 2009 on a student visa in 2009, and stayed here illegally when his student visa was revoked the following year.

So unless he was working as a journalist at the age of 15 , I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest they’re different people and that you try mustering some evidence for future claims about this.

jz adams March 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Its a coincidence, not a conspiracy theory at all. I knew they were separate people. As I said, I like coincidences that’s all. Do you find this affadavit to not be compelling? http://www.lawfareblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/jumaev_complaint.pdf

Joshua Foust March 29, 2012 at 5:06 am

You mean the “Internetting while Muslim” affidavit? No. It makes sense to use that as a probable cause to investigate further, but a few conversations about a wedding and looking at videos on YouTube is not evidence of terrorism. That agent is (willfully, I think) reading the worst possible motives into the normal flowery, religious talk I hear Uzbeks use.

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