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Uzbekistan: Trials Against Tashkent Bombing Suspects Begin

By Bruce Pannier and Zamira Eshanova

Prague, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first trials of those charged with taking part in the bloody Tashkent bombings earlier this year have opened in Uzbekistan.

Our correspondent in Tashkent says that some early sentences have already been handed down and that they have been noticeably harsh. The sentences show that President Islam Karimov was not exaggerating when he vowed to make an example of the trials for other terrorists.

The bombings in February killed 15 people and injured more than 100 others. The attacks were widely seen as an assassination attempt on Karimov.

Investigations following the bombings were very thorough. Authorities arrested hundreds of suspects, mostly drawn from extremist Islamic groups and political opposition organizations.

The first trials are being held in the eastern city of Namangan in the Fergana Valley. The location is appropriate given the valley's reputation as the center of Islamic extremism in the country. Correspondents say the location sends a message Karimov is cracking down on Islamists.

The first verdict found Jobirkhan Akhmadjonov guilty of possessing a banned religious newspaper "Da'vat" and of having contact with a man on Uzbekistan's most-wanted criminal list. The court sentenced him to 13 years in jail and confiscated his property.

In a separate courtroom, Shokirjon Mamadaliyev received 16 years in jail for violating article 159 of the country's criminal code --attempting to overthrow the government. The court said Mamadaliyev was among a group of Uzbek youths who had trained in religious extremist camps in Pakistan.

A third trial involving 20 members of the Islamic group Hizbi Tahrir is now taking place. The men are facing charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional regime, being members of a banned religious group, recruiting new members and possessing narcotics. They, too, can expect harsh sentences.

But correspondents say these men are only pawns in the case and that the big show trials will open at the end of the month. President Karimov has invited members of the international press to attend those trials. Those charged could face the death penalty, but they are unlikely to be executed since courts in the past have been careful to avoid creating martyrs.

The two men the Uzbek government has labeled as organizing the attack: --Takhir Yuldash, the leader of Hizbi Tahrir; and Mohammed Solih, the leader of the banned Erk Democratic Party-- remain outside the country and beyond the grasp of Uzbek authorities.

Namangan, where the first trials were held, has been the scene of religious violence in the recent past. Four policemen were killed there in December 1997 and the Uzbek government immediately blamed religious extremists.