The specific charges against the men include attempting to overthrow the government and promoting religious extremism.
But as their trial began yesterday in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, it was clear the defendants have considerable popular support. Hundreds of people gathered on both sides of the street where the court building is situated. The demonstrators, who appeared well organized, brought food and water with them as well as benches for the women among the protesters to sit upon. Police watched the protest but did not interfere.
Lutfulla Shamsiddinov, an Uzbek human rights activist in Andijon who was on the scene, told RFE/RL that the protest was peaceful. "Relatives, neighbors, friends, and colleagues of the 23 young men who are accused [of belonging to the banned Islamist group Akramiya] came to the court building and stood watching," Shamsiddinov said.
The accused men, the protesters, and independent human rights activists say the government’s charges are groundless. They say most of the 23 men did not know about Akramiya before being arrested and confessed to belonging to it only under torture.
Madamin Bobomirzaev is one of the accused men. “They said I should sign a testimony as a witness," he said. "I wanted to read it, but they didn’t let me. They forced me to sign it. They were shouting, beating me, they used force. I read [the documents] only when they summoned me to announce formal charges against me. Then I learned about the [charge of being a member of] Akramiya and realized that they made me sign a confession that I was in the Akramiya.”
The Akramiya group was founded in 1996 by Akram Yuldoshev, a native of Andijon, after an ideological rift within Hizb ut-Tahrir. Yuldoshev argued that Hizb ut-Tahrir’s proclaimed goal of using nonviolent means to establish a regionwide Islamic state, or caliphate, would not work in Central Asia. He urged followers to gain power at the local level instead of striving for a new global Islamic order.
After Yuldoshev unsuccessfully attempted to register his group with the Uzbek government, his organization was declared illegal and he was imprisoned on charges of unconstitutional activity and extremism. Local observers say that as Yuldoshev now serves his prison sentence, it is not clear whether Akramiya continues to be active in Uzbekistan.
Talib Yoqubov, chairman of the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, says he believes there is no Akramiya activity in Uzbekistan. Yoqubov told RFE/RL that authorities use charges of Islamic extremism as a pretext for cracking down on dissent.
“They [authorities] made up Akramiya. There is nothing like Akramiya in Uzbekistan now. Several years ago, they spoke of Wahhabi. Then they started talking about Hizb ut-Tahrir. [Membership in] Jamoati Tabligh [another Islamist group] became another accusation under which they imprisoned many people. Now it is Akramiya. I am sure after a while, [the authorities] will come up with some new name. This is the process we witness in Uzbekistan,” Yoqubov said.
Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country but the country’s government has viewed pious Muslims with suspicion and prohibited any religious activity outside state-controlled mosques.
Human rights activists and independent observers say thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned in Uzbekistan simply because their devotion aroused authorities' suspicions. Most of them are charged with attempts to overthrow the constitutional regime, extremism, and terrorism.
However, some rights activists say the Andijon cases may not be only politically but also economically motivated. Uzbek human rights activist Shamsiddinov says the 23 defendants -- all wealthy entrepreneurs -- established a foundation that was involved in charitable activities. He says the foundation’s assets are the real reason for persecution of its members.
“It’s wrong to name the 23 accused men as extremists and Akramiya members," he said. "They are just a group of entrepreneurs because only few of them are devout Muslims praying and following their faith. At the same time, they have done very good deeds. They represent 15 or 20 companies from different economic spheres and they legally gave away about 20 million soms [$20,000] to public institutions, schools, orphanages, and kindergartens as charity.”
Mamurjon Qurbonov, head of the Turon Production company that produced furniture and conducted trade between Andijon and the Uzbek capital Tashkent is one of the accused men. He told RFE/RL that property including mobile telephones, automobiles, and jewelry has been confiscated from the defendants.
Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan Chairman Yoqubov called the confiscations “state piracy.” He says that as the government faces difficulties in meeting budget needs from a weak tax base, officials seek to make up shortfalls by confiscating property from relatively wealthy people.
“Uzbekistan is witnessing the period of the state-orchestrated piracy," Yoqubov said. "The state uses the judiciary to rob its own citizens. We see that entrepreneurs are subject to robbery and a lot of different things are made up to try and imprison them.”
The Uzbek government's State Board on Religious Affairs have refused to comment on the Andijon trial but have repeated that membership in Akramiya is unlawful.
(RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report).