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Voice Of Dissent Flees Uzbekistan

  • Farangis Najibullah

Nigora Hidoyatova, the outspoken leader of the unregistered Free Peasants Uzbek opposition party.

Nigora Hidoyatova, the outspoken leader of the unregistered Free Peasants Uzbek opposition party.

One of Uzbekistan's few remaining opposition figures has fled the country after coming to the conclusion that she would be charged with seeking to overthrow the government.

Nigora Hidoyatova, the outspoken leader of the unregistered Free Peasants (Ozod Dehqonlar) opposition party, spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service shortly after her arrival this week in a third country, whose identity she did not reveal for security reasons.

"I left Uzbekistan on July 13 because I was threatened, she said. "I was recently summoned for interrogation 15 times as a witness. But on the 16th time I was summoned as a defendant. It meant I was going to be charged. The person who brought the summons told me to come with a defense lawyer."

Hidoyatova maintains that over the course of many interrogations, authorities made it clear that they were preparing to charge her with setting up an illegal organization and seeking to overthrow the government by force.

"These are very serious charges which carry harsh punishments, and once convicted and imprisoned you can't be pardoned under any amnesty," she said.

The decisive moment for Hidoyatova came when her interrogators brought forward three people to provide testimony against her.

She claims she knew two of them, but she had never met the third, whom she described as a native Uzbek from Tajikistan.

The man claimed he had seen Hidoyatova at a meeting with exiled Uzbek opposition leaders in Istanbul, where they allegedly discussed ways to overthrow the government in Tashkent.

"The so-called witness also said that my role was to coordinate financial support, which we -- allegedly -- were to receive from the United States to overthrow the government," Hidoyatova said.

"I knew what that meant," she added. "Imprisonment was imminent if I stayed in Uzbekistan."

Self-Imposed Exile

The 48-year-old mother of two grown-up children made the decision to follow the footsteps of many other Uzbek opposition leaders, and opted for self-imposed exile.

A historian by profession, Hidoyatova joined politics in 2003, when she set up her party of Free Peasants.

Authorities refused to register the party, and its members were denied the right to register as candidates for 2004 parliamentary elections.

Free Peasants subsequently joined the opposition groups "Erk" and "Birlik" in boycotting the election, and Hidoyatova vowed to continue fighting for democracy.

She has since gained a reputation as a rare and powerful voice of dissent coming from a nation tightly controlled by the autocratic regime of President Islam Karimov.

Her name frequently appears in regional media, where she criticizes Tashkent's policies. In Uzbekistan itself, however, Hidoyatova and other opposition activists have no access to the media, which is largely state-controlled.

Political activity, conviction, and arrest are not unfamiliar in Hidoyatova's household.

Her sister, Nodira, has been arrested twice on what rights activists have described as politically motivated charges.

Nodira, a member of the opposition Sunshine Uzbekistan alliance, was sentenced to 10 years in prison following her criticism of the government following the 2005 Andijon massacre. She was released from prison early, but is barred from leaving the country.

Hidoyatova's father, Goga Hidoyatov, is a prominent historian and author of numerous works, including school history textbooks. Her grandparents Abror Hidoyatov and Sara Eshonturaeva were iconic actors and household names in Uzbekistan.

Once, when asked by the media about his daughter Nodira's prison sentence, Goga Hidoyatov said: "One day, she will prevail, like Nelson Mandela."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on an interview conducted by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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