The Tashkent bombings of February 1999 killed 16 people and wounded more than 100 others. The subsequent investigation and trials led to a conclusion by the Uzbek authorities that an alliance of Islamic extremists and banned democratic opposition figures was responsible. This week, Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) invited members of the press to listen to one of those found guilty of involvement in the bombings. But left alone with journalists, this key witness recanted his testimony and accused the authorities of knowing about the plot ahead of time.
Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were arrested or detained in the aftermath of the 1999 bombings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. When a series of trials started a few months later, the testimony of suspects matched almost exactly the initial suspicions of Uzbek investigators.
One of the suspects whose testimony helped to prove the Uzbek prosecutor's case was Zayniddin Askarov. Askarov was a political leader in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that made several armed incursions into Uzbekistan following the Tashkent bombings.
Askarov was sentenced to 10 years in jail after his testimony helped implicate IMU leaders Juma Namangani and Takhir Yuldash and Erk Democratic Party leader Mohammed Solih. All three were tried in absentia in connection with the bombings and found guilty.
On 26 November, Uzbekistan's National Security Service invited journalists from the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Liberty to speak with Askarov, apparently after challenges to the official version of events that appeared on the Internet.
After repeating his basic testimony, Askarov suddenly found himself alone with the journalists when the security official left the room. At that point, Askarov changed his statement and told the reporters he had been deceived by Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov into admitting his guilt and implicating others in the bombings.
"The Interior Minister Almatov himself invited me to his office and promised that if I would give testimony against Solih, if I played this role, then everyone would be amnestied, that no one would be shot, and I would be released after the trial. So I said what I said in court to save these people," Askarov said.
Askarov says he was seeking to save his religious teacher, Bahrom Abdullayev, and five other acquaintances from the firing squad. Abdullayev was accused by authorities of being behind the bombings, despite the fact he was already in prison at the time they were carried out.
In his comments to journalists, Askarov disputed the Uzbek government's official version of what happened on 16 February 1999, saying the authorities knew in advance the bombings would take place. Askarov said Abdullayev had warned the authorities about the impending attacks. As proof, Askarov offered this explanation of what happened immediately after the bombings.
"Not even five minutes after the blasts, [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov, [National Security Committee chairman] Rustam Inoyatov, and [Interior Minister] Zokir Almatov were at the square [Mustakillik Maidoni, the site of Tashkent's government buildings]. And as if according to a script, they declared this was the work of religious fanatics and said, 'We know who did this and we will soon find them,' " Askarov said.
Askarov also said Erk leader Solih had nothing to do with the Tashkent bombings, nor did IMU ideological leader Takhir Yuldash. Askarov named a former mufti as the organizer of the attacks -- Abdullah Qori -- and said the goal of those who carried out the bombings was, indeed, to kill Karimov.
The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Ravshan Abdullakhanov of the SNB paid a visit to RFE/RL's bureau in Tashkent to rebut Askarov's charges and to try to explain why Askarov said what he did.
"If we consider that [Askarov] himself has said that he is mentally ill, then I think your listeners will be able to judge for themselves [the validity of his comments]," Abdullakhanov said.
Abdullakhanov brought a stack of documents that he says proves Erk leader Solih is guilty as charged of planning the bombings.
Asked by RFE/RL who had initiated the meeting between Askarov and the journalists, Abdullakhanov said mysteriously, "[The meeting] took place at the initiative of Zayniddin Askarov."
The Askarov case raises a number of questions. Why was there an apparent security lapse around a convicted prisoner? Why did the security service not demand the tapes of Askarov's seemingly unapproved conversation with foreign journalists before they were aired? And why did the SNB feel the need to come to Radio Liberty the next day to dismiss Askarov's charges and try to explain what had happened?
Uzbekistan is accused by international rights organizations of routinely torturing and killing prisoners. There is no precedent for security officials granting a prisoner's request to speak with the foreign media -- or of seeking out the media themselves to deny statements made by the prisoner.
(Oktambek Karimov and Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)