Prague, 30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov had a lot to say yesterday at a press conference. The Uzbek president said the origins of the string of attacks one month ago in Tashkent and Bukhara are now clearer. He also said those apprehended in connection with the attacks would go on trial late this summer.
"There will be a trial [of the 45 people charged with involvement in violence last month]. Most likely it will take place this year, at the end of the summer, in August, at least according to the information I have. Most probably in August or September," Karimov said.
"It's quite a general pattern now, that any regime which is under threat from an opposition tries to link this opposition with Al-Qaeda in order to gain Western support."
The attacks in Bukhara and Tashkent in late March and early April left 47 people dead, most of them assailants and police. A number of the attacks reportedly involved female suicide bombers, a relatively new phenomenon in Central Asia. Uzbek authorities were quick to blame Islamic extremists, pinpointing groups that are known or suspected plotters against the Uzbek government.
The Uzbek government most recently appeared to be blaming Jamo'at, a little-known Islamic group. But Karimov yesterday said it was remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who were responsible. The IMU has the stated goal of overthrowing the Uzbek government and, to that end, staged incursions into Uzbek and Kyrgyz territory in 1999 and 2000.
The group was seriously weakened by the U.S. assault on Afghanistan, where many of its members were based. But its leader, Tohir Yuldash, is reportedly still alive. Recent news reports say Yuldash was wounded in fighting with Pakistani military forces in the Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan. That fighting took place just days before the attacks in Uzbekistan.
Is the IMU now based in Pakistan? Maybe. But Olivier Roy, a noted author on Central Asian affairs, told RFE/RL he doubts the IMU has the "institutional" capacity to order attacks in Uzbekistan from camps in Pakistan. "It's quite unlikely that there is an institutional connection between the people who blew up the bombs in Tashkent recently and what is going on now in Waziristan, in Pakistan," he said.
But President Karimov said that evidence from people arrested in connection with the attacks -- particularly maps allegedly in their possession -- showed they came from Pakistan. He said he believed the IMU remnants were all based in Waziristan.
Roy said some of the people involved in the Uzbek attacks may be linked to the IMU. But he says the nature of the violence suggests there may have been other motives for the assaults than the total overthrow of the government in Tashkent. "One cannot exclude that, among the suicide bombers in Tashkent, some people could have had some connection with Afghanistan at one time -- for example, former veterans of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," he said. "But as far as we know, most of the female suicide bombers were just members of families whose members are in jail, and it was some sort of a protest against the police in Uzbekistan."
Roy also said accusing a group like the IMU -- which has alleged ties to Al-Qaeda -- is becoming a typical tactic for many governments looking to tie regional conflicts to the wider war on terror. "It's quite a general pattern now, that any regime which is under threat from an opposition tries to link this opposition with Al-Qaeda in order to gain Western support and also, I would say, in order to have the West turning a blind eye to the other problems of the domestic politics," he said.
Previous trials of suspected extremists in Uzbekistan have been heavily criticized by international rights organizations as unfair. Karimov, in his remarks yesterday, said the trials of the 45 suspects would be fair and open to the media. "I set one condition: the trial must be open, completely open, so journalists, especially foreign journalists, are given maximum opportunity to communicate and to be present at this trial," he said.
Roy said he hopes the words of the Uzbek president prove true. But he said past experience leaves him little cause for optimism. "To the extent we know, past trials were not fair," he said. "But there's always time to change and I hope the government will take the opportunity of these new trials to open [the courtroom proceedings] and allow visits to the prisoners and access to lawyers."
Western criticism of Uzbekistan is not limited to courtroom procedures. The Central Asian nation has also come under frequent fire for its poor human rights record. Such criticism has led to more painful censure -- such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's recent decision to scale back operations in Uzbekistan. Karimov yesterday lashed out at his critics, saying such harsh actions are unwarranted. "The European Bank [for Reconstruction and Development] sometimes takes too much on itself -- sometimes you can't understand whether it's a bank with economic and financial interests or a human rights organization," he said.
Karimov's comments come just days after the Uzbek government shut down the Uzbek branch of the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute (OSI). Karimov said OSI's work was having a negative effect on the minds of young Uzbek intellectuals. He said the OSI was like many international organization, who "come to a Muslim country without understanding our thousands of years of history and our values, and they are trying to destroy our traditions."
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)