Farida Rahimova, a lawyer for some of the men, told RFE/RL: “They are very young, all 20 of them. Many of them are engaged in entrepreneurial activities. One of them does karate. Another teaches at school. The third studies in Moscow, he is a Ph.D. student.”
All of the men are accused of anticonstitutional activities, membership in an extremist organization, banditry, terrorism, and murder. In September 2004, they were detained along with many others after a string of explosions and attacks in Uzbekistan in the spring and summer of that year. The attacks, several of which were suicide bombings, left 47 people dead.
The accusations against the men also include causing explosions in February 1999 in Tashkent that left 12 people dead. The Uzbek government has blamed Islamic extremist groups for both sets of attacks.
Rahimova spoke to RFE/RL after yesterday’s hearing, saying the charges against the men are groundless. “In today’s hearing, we’ve heard a lot of slander, even from the prosecutor," she said. "He charged these men with crimes perpetrated two-three years ago. They are charged with [aiding] a woman who blew herself up in the Chorsu bazaar [in Tashkent in March 2004] and even with bomb explosions that took place in 1999 in Tashkent. I’m sorry, but do prosecutors realize how old these boys were back in 1999?”
Parents of the accused men say their sons adhere to the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism is an Islamic revivalist theory and the state ideology of the Saudi dynasty. It was imported to Central Asia in the early 1990s.
A mother of one of the accused men said her son was not in Tashkent during the attacks. She also said her son is a devout Muslim. “My son didn’t do anything wrong. His only guilt is that he started praying when he was 13," she said. "He said to the court that if he is charged with praying, then [it meant] he agreed he was guilty. It’s wrong. It shouldn’t be like this. Our leader [President Islam Karimov] says those who beg pardon, must be pardoned. But the attitude toward my son hasn’t changed, after he begged for pardon.”
Many prisoners’ relatives, as well as human rights activists, have said that all Muslim prisoners are forced to write a letter to President Karimov begging his pardon and denouncing their faith in exchange for amnesty. If they reject this, they are forced to eat pork and are subject to different kinds of torture.
Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but Karimov's government views pious Muslims with suspicion and has prohibited any religious activity outside state-controlled mosques. Wahhabis, members of the outlawed Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and other unregistered religious groups are subject to constant crackdowns.
Rights activists and independent observers say thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned in Uzbekistan simply because their faith has aroused the authorities' suspicions. In the past, many have been charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional regime, extremism, and terrorism.
Independent human rights activists say this most recent trial is another farce conducted to demonstrate the authorities’ war against terror -- the real purpose of which, according to the human rights activists, is to further crack down on peaceful Muslims.
Vitalii Ponomarev, the Central Asia program director at the Moscow-based Memorial human rights center, told RFE/RL: "This trial is another in a series of falsified trials, the new wave of which started after the explosions last spring," he said. "I believe this trial is in no way different from many others. In this one, too, we witness violations of religious freedom. Very often, simple gatherings of people are used as grounds for persecution and criminal cases are fabricated.”
The trial comes amid reports of the arrest of Sobirjon Yakubov, a correspondent for the independent Uzbek “Hurriyat” daily. He was detained on 11 April. On 15 April, Interior Ministry official Alisher Sharafutdinov confirmed that Yakubov had been arrested and accused of “undermining the country’s constitutional regime.”
Fellow journalists at “Hurriyat” have said the charges against Yakubov are groundless. They say Yakubov was arrested not only because he was a devout Muslim, but because of his journalistic activity. According to the “Muslim Uzbekistan” website on 19 April, in the past Yakubov has written about the killing of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and his own hajj pilgrimage. His article about his travels to Mecca was titled "A Journey To The Land Of Dreams."
For more background on the attacks in Uzbekistan, see RFE/RL's special webpage "Terror in Uzbekistan".