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Central Asia Report: October 28, 2004


28 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 39

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai let slip the dogs of political scandal in Kazakhstan when he announced that he will leave the pro-presidential Otan party and give up his seat in the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament), and along with it his duties as speaker of the legislature. The Kazakh opposition responded enthusiastically, although some observers suggested that Tuyakbai's demarche is likely part of an obscure power struggle within the ruling elite. President Nursultan Nazarbaev shrugged off the incident, remarking, "Everyone has a right to hold his own views." On the diplomatic front, Kazakhstan hosted foreign ministers from the 17 member states of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). No earth-shattering agreements resulted, but President Nazarbaev took the opportunity to speak out in favor of expanding the UN Security Council to include states from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev visited Kyrgyzstan, where he discussed law-enforcement cooperation with his Kyrgyz colleagues and announced that Kyrgyz police in August detained four men suspected of committing crimes in Chechnya. In parliament, opposition deputies walked out to protest an upcoming vote on energy-sector privatization; the legislators would first like to hear more details about the bankruptcy of the companies to be privatized. Imprisoned opposition leader Feliks Kulov filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing that he should be eligible for parole before late 2005. And in other opposition news, the bloc For Fair Elections and the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan decided to join forces.

Tajikistan hosted a meeting of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO), which welcomed Russia as its fifth member. CACO now consists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The meeting centered on security issues, and member states agreed to draw up over the next three months a list of religious-extremist organizations banned on CACO territory. An EU delegation met with President Imomali Rakhmonov; together, they hailed the EU-Tajik cooperation signed in Luxembourg on 11 October. Russia's and Tajikistan's Interior Ministries held the sixth session of their joint collegium, focusing attention on the issue of illegal migration. Tajik Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov announced that total drug seizures in Tajikistan in 2004 top 6,000 kilograms so far, with heroin accounting for more than 4,000 kilos. The plight of independent media continued to spark concerns after tax authorities shut down the Jiyonkhon printing house in August, stranding a number of publications. Some outlets looked to find printing facilities in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, while the Islamic Renaissance Party opened its own printing house to publish its "Najot" newspaper.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. The two presided over the official signing of a contract for Turkmenistan's Ministry of Railway Transport to buy $128 million of railway cars and equipment from China. Later in the week, the Turkmen president signed decrees amnestying 9,000 prisoners and raising salaries, pension, and stipends 50 percent. The prisoners will go free on the Muslim holiday of Laylat al-Qadr, known in Turkmen as Gadyr Gijesi, which falls on 10 November; wages will go up on 1 January 2005. Finally, Niyazov opened "the biggest mosque in Central Asia" in his native village of Kipchak. On a smaller scale, a new building opened for Ashgabat's Russian-language Pushkin Theater.

Even as Uzbekistan continued to prepare for 26 December parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the OSCE not to send an observer mission. In a letter, HRW argued that Uzbekistan has failed to meet even minimal democratic standards and "sending any kind of observer mission...would send the mistaken message that [Uzbekistan's] electoral system and the government's respect for civic freedoms meet OSCE standards."

Also last week, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer toured Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, he noted that NATO expects to receive an Individual Partnership Program soon, marking the next stage in the Partnership for Peace Planning and Review Process. In Kyrgyzstan, it emerged that NATO will help to set up an alpine-rescue training center that will eventually be used to train peacekeeping forces. In Uzbekistan, de Hoop Scheffer noted the importance of developing democratic institutions and basic freedoms because "terrorism finds a breeding ground where there is a lack of these principles." In Tajikistan, de Hoop Scheffer signed a bilateral transit agreement on support for NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan; he also addressed the recent opening of a Russian military base in Tajikistan, saying, "We are not in competition with Russia in this area." And in Turkmenistan, the secretary-general discussed the possibility of NATO's receiving air and land transit corridors through Turkmenistan for operations in Afghanistan.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN UZBEKISTAN: THE TERROR TRIALS. Violence explodes in an instant; justice emerges over time. The terror attacks that struck Uzbekistan in the spring unfolded over the course of a mere five days, from 28 March to 1 April. Three suicide bombings on 30 July took place within minutes of each other. But the past several months have witnessed numerous trials, some of them directly linked to the springtime attacks, others more vaguely connected through the issue of religious extremism.

Although Uzbek courts have handed down dozens of sentences, it is too early for a final verdict on the trials themselves, which continue to this day. Still, sufficient material has accumulated for a preliminary reckoning. The brief overview of terror trials that follows does not pretend to completeness; rather, its purpose is to point out emerging trends, identify overarching issues, and provide a general benchmark for future evaluations.

The first and most obvious problem that confronts any review of terrorism-related trials in Uzbekistan after the violent events in the spring is source material. Although official Uzbek media provided extensive coverage of the trial that began in Tashkent on 26 July, other trials have received far less scrutiny. Moreover, sadly familiar divisions run through the coverage, with official media often providing one version, unofficial media outlets providing another, and opposition sources with particular agendas sometimes adding a third (or more). The account that follows is based on a combination of available sources, primarily in Uzbek. They range from Uzbekistan's official news agency and Uzbek television to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and the BBC's Uzbek Service to such opposition sites as Erkinyurt (http://www.erkinyurt.org/). A special case is MuslimUzbekistan (http://www.muslimuzbekistan.com/), which is militantly hostile to the current Uzbek government. Although the site itself, which "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" profiled in brief on 6 October 2004, is clearly biased, its Uzbek-language news section provides generally objective summaries of reports from other sources. Some of the material used here was culled from those news summaries, but no material that could not be found in another source was taken from MuslimUzbekistan.

The Trials

On 3 July, 10 people went on trial in Ferghana for violating Criminal Code Articles 159 (infringement on the constitutional system), 244-2 (creating, leading, or participating in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations), 248 (illegal weapons possession), and 276 (illegal drug possession), the opposition site Erkinyurt reported. Defendant Umar Ashurov was arrested on 31 March; the other nine were arrested on 3 April at the home of Shuhrat Salohiddinov in Margelan, Forum 18 reported. Earlier, Salohiddinov had been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for membership in the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir; he was amnestied in 2003. His guests had similar backgrounds. A police search turned up banned Islamist literature, bullets, and drugs. But the wife of a defendant told Forum 18 that the police arrived with the results of their search already written up, suggesting that the evidence was planted. The accused also alleged -- in court -- that the evidence was planted. On 23 July, the court sentenced the defendants to prison terms ranging from 10 to 12 years. Forum 18 reported that observers, and even the defendants' lawyers, were barred from the courtroom on 23 July.

On 26 July, Abdulla Kamolov and Ahmadqul Ghoynazarov went on trial in Ferghana on charges virtually identical to the charges defendants faced in the Ferghana trial, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. More concretely, the two were charged with forming a group of more than 10 people in the village of Buvayda under the cover of religious lessons with the actual aim of overthrowing Uzbekistan's "constitutional system," the BBC reported. According to Erkinyurt, Kamolov had been a member of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a known terrorist organization that established ties with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban. The defendants admitted to partial guilt. Their lawyers protested numerous violations in the course of the trial. In one incident, after they left the courtroom in protest, the judge issued a special ruling stripping them of their licenses, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 23 August. In the end, both men received 10-year sentences.

Also on 26 July, 15 people went on trial in Uzbekistan's Supreme Court in Tashkent for involvement in the March-April violence. The trial drew broad coverage from domestic and foreign media, and Western human rights advocates observed it. It also proceeded briskly, albeit with an enforced recess. After three suicide bombers struck Tashkent on 30 July, the trial paused for over two weeks before resuming after 17 August. Sentencing took place on 24 August. Noting that the defendants confessed, cooperated with the investigation, expressed remorse, and asked for forgiveness, the judge slightly softened the prosecutor's requests and handed down sentences ranging from six to 18 years. Testimony during the trial painted a picture of a shadowy group called Jamoat -- "group," or "community," derived from the Arabic word for "group" -- with ideological links to the darkest corners of Islamic extremism. One witness spoke of a meeting in Moscow at which plotters repeatedly invoked Osama bin Laden and IMU leader Tohir Yuldoshev.

After the trial, Allision Gill, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Tashkent who observed most of the proceedings, rendered a withering verdict of her own to the BBC. "The court's final verdict did not meet the standards for a fair trial," she said. "First, proof of guilt was based solely on the defendants' confessions. Second, neither the prosecutor nor the defense lawyers asked about the conditions under which the confessions were obtained." Additionally, defendants' relatives were denied access to the courtroom. Gill concluded, "What I assert is that the trial failed to meet the standards of a fair trial. As a result, the verdict cannot resolve the question of whether the defendants are guilty or innocent."

Twelve people went on trial in Namangan in early August on charges of involvement in the springtime violence, facing charges that included the violation of Article 159 of the Criminal Code (infringement on the constitutional system). Reports by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service indicated that this trial differed significantly from the trial in Tashkent. According to independent observer Ravshan Khomatov, the defendants, who were arrested shortly after the violence in the spring, maintained their innocence. Moreover, Khomatov told RFE/RL that individuals who witnessed the arrest told him, "If we had been called, we would have testified about how [extremist] pamphlets were planted [on the accused]." The court did not call the witnesses, however. Two of the accused received seven-year sentences; the rest were sentenced to six years' imprisonment each. Relatives, who alleged that the defendants were beaten when they were taken into custody, vowed to appeal the verdict.

On 12 August, six people went on trial in Andijon for violating Criminal Code Article 244-2 (creating, leading, or participating in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations) through membership in Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary group founded by Muhammad Ilyas in India in the first half of the 20th century. Tablighi Jammat is known primarily as an apolitical group of itinerant preachers with a worldwide reach, but as a 14 July 2003 article in "The New York Times" detailed, it has drawn attention as a possible cover for radicals. The number of defendants in the Andijon trial eventually reached 11, and reports indicated that one of them, a graduate of the Oriental Studies Faculty of Tashkent State University, had worked in India for several years. The BBC reported that the group's alleged leader had studied in Pakistan. But RFE/RL's Uzbek Service quoted Lutfulla Shamsuddinov, the Andijon representative of the Uzbekistan Independent Human Rights Organization, as saying that the accused told the court they were not members of any organized religious community. When the verdict came on 18 October, most of the defendants' received five-year prison sentences.

On 6 September, another group of 15 people, including eight women, went on trial in Tashkent for involvement in the springtime violence. This trial also represented a departure from the first trial of 15 in Tashkent. The BBC reported on 8 September that most of the accused denied the charges against them; but some of them admitted partial guilt, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. One woman admitted to failing to report a crime, and one man said that he kept banned audiotapes at home because he lacked the religious education to tell the difference. The accused also stated that they had not known each other before they were arrested. Uzbek human rights activist Sur'at Ikromov told the BBC that defendant Nilufar Haydarova said on 12 September that she had been tortured during the investigation and then pressured not to mention the torture. RFE/RL reported that the majority of the accused said that they were not involved in the March-April violence, and that they had confessed, presumably during the investigation, under torture. On 7 October, the court found all of the defendants guilty. Sentences varied widely, ranging from three years' probation to 15 and 1/2 years behind bars.

Courts were busy in the first week of September, with groups of 16 and 31 people going on trial in Kashkadarya, groups of eight and 16 in Bukhara, and six in Namangan. The charges were standard fare for trials of religious extremists -- infringement on the constitutional system and participation in illegal organizations. But not all of the trials were directly linked to the violence that shook Uzbekistan in the spring. The Kashkadarya 31 faced charges of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir and involvement in springtime violence, while reports of the Kashkadarya 16 did not mention the terror attacks. All of the Bukhara defendants were linked to the explosion outside Bukhara on 28 March that marked the beginning of the violence. The Namangan defendants faced charges of extremist links without reference to any specific acts of terror.

In the trial of the Kashkadarya 31, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service documented allegations of torture. Nargiza Yuldosheva, a relative of one of the defendants, told RFE/RL that the accused initially faced charges of Wahhabism, a catch-all phrase that has drifted from its Saudi moorings and taken root in the post-Soviet world to denote any type of religious activity deemed extremist by the authorities. By mid-September, however, the defendants were charged with links to the springtime explosions and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Yuldosheva said that after the accused refused to confess, they were tortured and forced to sign documents they were not even given a chance to read. On 22 September, RFE/RL reported that defendants Murtazo Qurbonov and Ziyodulla Pulatov had each received a 14-year prison sentence, even as the trial of the remaining 29 defendants continued.

In Bukhara, the trials of eight and 16 ran parallel to each other. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported on 9 September that the 16 accused admitted their guilt. Both the BBC and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported that journalists and relatives of the accused were not allowed to attend sessions of the trial. Guilty verdicts resulted, and all 24 defendants were sentenced on 12 October, RFE/RL reported. Sentences ranged from four to 18 years, and 15 people received sentences of 15 to 17 years. Faroghat Akramova, for example, received a nine-year sentence for the death of her sister-in-law, who was killed when Akramova tried to blow herself up on 1 April.

The Namangan 6, whose trial took place in the city of Chust, were sentenced on 20 September to sentences of six or seven years, although the prosecutor had asked for harsh terms of 17 years and more. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported that the defendants were alleged by the prosecution to have had close ties with religious extremists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1990-92 and 1996-97. Accounts of the trial suggested various violations. Domestic human rights groups reported, in accounts reproduced on MuslimUzbekistan, that defendants in court recanted earlier testimony because they had given it under duress. Independent observer Ravshan Kholmatov told RFE/RL that some of the defendants had been tortured, and that the defendants themselves had said as much in court. Finally, RFE/RL reported that when the judge read out the sentences, only one lawyer was present in court to represent the six defendants.

On 20 September, even as the trial of the Kashkadarya 31 continued, another 18 people went on trial in Kashkadarya. Arrested in April, the defendants were charged with attempting to overthrow the state to achieve the ideological goals of Hizb ut-Tahrir and establish an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service quoted observers who reported that defendants were insufficiently familiar with the charges against them, and that some of their lawyers mounted a lackluster defense. On 20 October, the court brought in guilty verdicts and sentences ranging from 12 to 16 years. Hasan Muhammadiev told RFE/RL, "I defended eight of the accused. Not one of them admitted his guilt. The case files I've received contain no proof of the charges.... Moreover, our requests for an investigation into physical pressure on the prisoners have been ignored."

One of the trials brought to light an astonishing story. In late September, Qosim Ermatov appeared before a court in Tashkent to face charges of terrorism and infringement on the constitutional system, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 23 September. A native of Uzbekistan's Namangan Province, Ermatov was called up into the Soviet Army in the 1980s and sent to fight in Afghanistan, where he was reported killed in action in 1986. The body returned home in a sealed casket; the family said farewell and buried him without laying eyes on him. His sister Dilfuza recalled that Ermatov posthumously received the Order of the Red Star, and that a school and a street were named after him.

In 1991, a Czech journalist came to Ermatov's elderly father and informed him that his son was alive and well in Afghanistan. The next year, the Red Crescent set up a half-hour meeting between father and son in Islamabad, Pakistan. Dilfuza explained to RFE/RL that her brother had been a driver in Afghanistan; he was captured after the vehicle he was driving hit a mine. Ermatov was a Muslim, and he knew the declaration of the faith ("There is no God but Allah..."); it saved his life. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported on 27 September that Ermatov fought for five years alongside the Afghan Mujahedin against the Soviets, went on to obtain a religious education in Pakistan, and then returned to Afghanistan, where he married an Afghan woman and fathered five children.

The circumstances of Ermatov's recent forced return to Uzbekistan are less than clear. The BBC reported that Ermatov was captured in Pakistan in late 2003 with the help of U.S. forces and sent to Uzbekistan. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported that he was extradited in June 2004, adding only that his relatives did not know how or when he was captured.

In court, Ermatov admitted that he was a driver and repairman for the IMU in 1996, but he said that he left the group in 2001. Uyghun Siddiqov, a former IMU fighter who was amnestied in Uzbekistan and called to testify at Ermatov's trial, told RFE/RL that he visited Ermatov in Mazar-e Sharif in 2000. Siddiqov said that IMU leader Tohir Yuldoshev made an apparently unsuccessful attempt to recruit Ermatov, who knew several languages and felt at home in Afghanistan. Judge Nizomjon Rustamov said that Ermatov was guilty of "recruiting fighters for the IMU" and sentenced him to 18 years in prison, the BBC reported.

And the verdicts and sentences continue to come in. On 22 October, a court in Tashkent sentenced 23 defendants to prison terms ranging from three to 18 years on charges of involvement in violence in the spring, the BBC reported. Other trials are only beginning. In early October, a group of five people went on trial in a Tashkent Province court; they were arrested at the time of the spring violence and face charges related to religious extremism. Another group of four people went on trial on 21 October accused of ties with Hizb ut-Tahrir, the IMU, and Wahhabism.

The Issues

The preceding is not even close to exhaustive -- many more details could have been added about each trial, and other trials have taken place and will take place. But even the admittedly incomplete accounts above demonstrate the first truth about the trials that have followed recent violence in Uzbekistan: not all of the "terror trials" are the same. The common element is that defendants are generally charged with violating similar articles of the Criminal Code, in particular Articles 155 (terrorism), 159 (infringement on the constitutional system), and 244-2 (creating, leading, or participating in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations). The differences depend on the answers to the following questions: Do the charges specifically relate to the violence in Tashkent and Bukhara in March-April? Did the defendants confess? Did they let their confessions stand or did they retract them in court? Do they, or others, allege torture? What other evidence has played a role in the trial? How open was the trial and how closely was it observed? How did credible observers evaluate the legal validity of the proceedings?

These questions suggest a three-tiered approach to evaluating terror trials. They should first be split into those that relate specifically to the March-April violence and those that fall under the general rubric of religious extremism as defined by the Uzbek authorities. Within that basic division, trials can be classified on the basis of confessions and evidence, with confession-based trials at one end of the spectrum and trials with a stronger evidentiary basis at the other. Finally, the overall fairness and legal validity of the proceedings comes into play, from respect for due process to any allegations of torture or other official malfeasance.

Two broad issues remain. The first is access to information. Some of the trials have taken place with extensive media coverage and international observers present. Other trials have been held under very different conditions, and we know much less about them. Coming months will give us a better sense of the big picture, as well as the pieces of the picture that are missing. Journalists have worked very hard, often under exceptionally challenging circumstances, to set down a commendable first draft. Researchers will now build on that first draft as they probe the limits of official willingness to provide access to further information.

The second issue is the extent of coercion and torture in the trials. The specter of torture has dogged Uzbek law-enforcement bodies for years. A 2003 report by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Theo van Boven described torture in Uzbekistan as systematic, a charge Uzbek officials have disputed, even while allowing that torture occurs and is a problem. The issue recently reared its head again with the very public removal of Craig Murray, Great Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan. On 11 October, the "Financial Times" quoted a confidential Foreign Office report written by the ambassador, who gained renown for his outspoken stances on human-rights issues. In the leaked document that many feel prompted Murray's subsequent removal, the former ambassador wrote, "Tortured dupes are forced to sign confessions showing what the Uzbek government wants the U.S. and U.K. to believe -- that they and we are fighting the same war against terror.... This is morally, legally, and practically wrong."

On the moral and legal levels, of course, it is to be hoped that the Uzbek government will vigorously investigate any claims of torture in the course of the terror trials. As the preceding material shows, there is cause for concern. (A spokesman for the Uzbek Embassy in Washington, D.C., agreed to answer questions about torture allegations and other trial-related issues for RFE/RL's "Central Asia Report"; the questions and answers will appear in an upcoming issue.) International organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which have undertaken impressive efforts in the past to document allegations of torture, also have an important role to play, both in gathering information and focusing the world's attention.

On the practical level, the issue of torture matters profoundly because it cuts to the heart of what the trials can tell us about the extent of the terror threat in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan today is a country where the most basic questions about the nature and threat of terrorism are posed in their starkest form -- is there a pressing threat that necessitates harsh measures, as the Uzbek government and its supporters argue? or is needlessly repressive government policy creating terrorists?

As more information emerges and we continue to analyze the trials, these questions will loom larger and larger. For now, the trials show that dozens of people have received prison sentences for an active commitment to radical ends and means. If the trials are credible, the threat is real and urgent, and we must examine the particulars in detail to learn as much as we can about its nature and origins. But if these are "tortured dupes...forced to sign confessions," the threat is of an entirely different nature and origin, though no less real and urgent.

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