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Uzbekistan: Human Rights Group Warns Of Crackdown

Prague, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Police and security forces in Uzbekistan are continuing to round up suspects following a series of bombings and violent clashes that have left some 45 people dead this week.

The government blames Islamic militants for the violence.

Human rights groups say they fear the violence could serve as a pretext for a further crackdown on nonviolent Muslims in Uzbekistan. They estimate that Uzbek authorities have jailed thousands of nonviolent Muslim dissidents over the past few years.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement today that at least 11 people -- most of them former religious prisoners -- and their relatives have been arrested and are being held in isolation.

Acacia Shields is the senior researcher on Central Asia for HRW. She told RFE/RL from Tashkent that Uzbek police initiated a campaign of so-called preventive measures immediately after the first incidents of violence on 28 March. "What the police appear to be doing is essentially going down their lists of so-called 'suspect' or 'dangerous' people and taking them into detention as a form of what they call 'preventive' measures," she said. "Now, the people on these lists that have been maintained by the police for years are mainly political and religious dissidents or their family members. The government is now holding them incommunicado."

Shields said HRW does not yet know the scale of the current wave of arrests. But she said the organization fears that those who are already being detained are in danger of being tortured.

Cases of arbitrary detention that HRW said it has documented so far include that of Dilshod Mamurov. HRW said Mamurov is currently being held incommunicado following his arrest on 29 March in Tashkent. HRW said Mamurov received a three-year suspended sentence in 1999 for his alleged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group that is calling for the establishment of an Islamic state in Central Asia through nonviolent means.

HRW claims that, during his current detention, Mamurov has been beaten by police and gassed.

Also arrested this week was Bobur Makhmudov, son of Uzbek writer and political prisoner Mamadli Makhmudov. Shields says the Uzbek authorities have so far refused to acknowledge his detention.

Mamadli Makhmudov was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1999 on charges of participating in a "criminal society" and for using the mass media to publicly insult President Islam Karimov. At his trial, Makhmudov said he was tortured by Uzbek police in an effort to get him to confess to involvement in the 1999 bombings of government buildings in Tashkent.

Shields said the Uzbek government's actions this week recall the wave of arbitrary arrests that followed the 1999 bombings. "I was here in 1999 after the bombings. The government then was also very quick to blame the violence on so-called Islamic extremists.," she said. "Police then proceeded to arrest nonviolent Muslim dissidents. Thousands of people were arrested in the period following those bombings. But in the end, they weren't charged with any involvement in the violence. And we're afraid that, given the targets of these recent detentions, we're going to see a repeat of this -- the government using the violence as a pretext to arrest nonviolent dissidents."

Earlier this week, HRW released a report documenting the Uzbek government's history of arresting and torturing Muslim dissidents. In recent years, thousands of independent Muslims -- people who practice their faith outside government-approved religious institutions -- have been imprisoned for their beliefs and practices.

The opposition Erk (Freedom) Democratic Party says it has complained to the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Turkish parliament about the mass arrests in Uzbekistan over the past several days.

Uzbek officials say around 30 people have been taken into custody in connection with the investigation into this week's violence. They have indicated that preliminary results of the investigation may be ready within four days.

Meanwhile, Uzbek authorities are asking Tashkent residents to watch out for suspicious behavior. Posters displayed across the capital today read: "Dear compatriots! This is our common responsibility -- to protect peace in the country, the former calm life of children, women and the elderly."

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