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Uzbekistan: Opposition Leader Awaits Decision On Possible Extradition

By Bruce Pannier
Uzbek opposition leader Mohammad Solih was detained in Prague last week on an Interpol warrant. Solih, whom the Uzbek government has accused of Islamic extremism and involvement in terrorist acts, remains in custody pending an official extradition request from the Uzbek government and documents concerning his case. Solih's lawyer has said he will ask for political refugee status for his client in the Czech Republic. As RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports, there has been a flurry of activity in the meantime to have Solih freed.

Prague, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of Uzbekistan's banned opposition party, Erk (Freedom), remains in a holding facility in the Czech capital, Prague, today. Mohammad Solih was taken into custody last week (28 November), when he arrived at Prague's Ruzyne airport from Amsterdam.

The Uzbek government has accused him of working with Islamic terrorists to plant bombs in Tashkent in February 1999 in an attempt to assassinate the country's president, Islam Karimov. Some 16 people were killed and another 150 injured in the blasts.

Solih -- who was the only independent candidate to challenge Karimov in 1991 presidential elections, and whose Erk party was banned in 1993 -- has repeatedly denied involvement in the bombings.

But the Uzbek government -- which last year sentenced Solih in absentia to a 15 1/2-year prison term -- put out a warrant for his arrest with Interpol, which Czech authorities used to detain Solih after his arrival in the country. Concerted efforts by human rights groups to free Solih have so far been complicated by the number of interested parties in the affair.

Members of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service visited Solih in detention today and said he is in good health and good spirits. Solih says he traveled to Prague to grant an interview to Radio Liberty.

Solih can be held for up to 40 days while Czech authorities wait for Uzbekistan to send a formal extradition request for Solih and documents concerning the charges against him.

Maisy Weicherding works on Central Asian issues for Amnesty International in London. She said her organization has already asked the Czech government to turn Solih over to Norway, which granted him political asylum two years ago.

"We have asked for the Czech government to actually release Mohammad Solih and to return him to Norway so that the Norwegian government can deal with the extradition request from Uzbekistan, because he is a refugee in Norway and it [is incumbent for] the Norwegian authorities to deal with any extradition requests that the Uzbek authorities put forward."

Solih was visited yesterday by the Norwegian ambassador to the Czech Republic, Lasse Seim. Last night, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen asked his Czech counterpart, Jan Kavan, to have Solih sent back to Norway.

Solih's supporters argue that if he is extradited to Uzbekistan, he may face torture or death. Uzbekistan's poor human rights record includes instances of police torture, sometimes resulting in death. The Uzbek government has repeatedly cracked down on non-mainstream Islamic groups in efforts it defends as attempts to fight terrorism in the region.

Solih describes himself not as a terrorist but rather as a victim of terror dispensed by the Uzbek government. Solih admits that, after fleeing the country in the early 1990s, he met briefly with a man who went on to lead the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) organization, which has been held responsible for several terrorist acts in Uzbekistan. But Solih says the IMU had not yet been formed at the time of their meeting, and adds that it is common for Uzbek opposition figures of all stripes to meet once they have left the country.

The Uzbek government has always tried to control or eliminate opposition to the government. Weicherding described the situation in Uzbekistan in the early 1990s: "Mohammad Solih founded Erk, the opposition party, in 1990. And it was basically allowed to operate for about a year, and he ran as a presidential candidate, as well. But from 1992 onwards, there was a real clampdown on all opposition parties and Erk, and later Birlik, were banned and a lot of members of the parties were arrested and Mohammad Solih had to go into exile."

Solih is still the chairman of the banned Erk Democratic Party. Though he lost in his presidential bid against Karimov in 1991, Solih still gathered some 12 percent of the vote -- a remarkable feat for an opponent in an election that many regarded as rigged.

Solih's lawyer, Miroslava Kohoutova, told RFE/RL last week that Solih may have to seek political refugee status in the Czech Republic to prevent any possibility of him being sent back to Uzbekistan. Kohoutova said she is optimistic about Solih's chances to be freed.

A number of governments and organizations have appealed for Solih's release. Besides Amnesty International, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group in Brussels -- as well as the U.S. government -- have made requests for Solih's release and return to Norway.

Uzbekistan is a key regional player in the United States' coalition against terror and has agreed to allow the U.S. use of its airspace and military bases for its campaign in Afghanistan. Many human rights observers have worried that the West, in return for Uzbekistan's participation, would soften its stance on the country's human rights record.

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