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Uzbekistan: Extremism Trial Postponed, Charges Reduced Amid Protests

Judges in Uzbekistan yesterday postponed a key hearing and prosecutors altered the charges against 23 men accused of belonging to a banned Islamic group. The decisions followed mass protests outside the courthouse in the eastern town of Andijon in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley. The accused have gone on hunger strike to protest against the charges, which they say are politically and economically motivated. Rights activists say recent protests have led Uzbek officials to soften their stance.

Prague, 12 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The trial of the 23 men that began in early February has led to serious discontent in Andijon.

Most of the accused men are wealthy entrepreneurs who owned production companies that were closed down pending court proceedings -- resulting in many young men and women losing their jobs. Defendants' relatives and their former employees have been holding demonstrations to protest the charges.

The strength of yesterday's protest grew as hundreds of people assembled outside the court building to await the court's ruling on the case.
Some protesters in Andijon say they will change their tactics if their peaceful efforts do not succeed.

The 23 men are accused of belonging to the banned Akramiya Islamic group. They say that they had no links to Akramiya and that they were tortured until they confessed to belonging to the group. The men have been on hunger strike and are demanding that an independent expert be brought in to testify in the court proceedings.

Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, who heads the independent, Andijon-based human rights group Appelyatsiya, said it has been a month since the defendants first asked to see an expert who would explain to them what the accusations were about. The judge, however, has refused their demand, despite the hunger strike.

"The judge and the prosecutor said they would not allow an expert's opinion and there was no need for an expert," Zaynabitdinov said. "They said they would make a decision themselves regardless. That's why there has been no expert involved in the case."

The peaceful nature of the demonstrations is significant. As one protester told an RFE/RL correspondent, people in the Ferghana Valley want to defend their rights in a "civilized manner."

However, the defendants' hunger strike and their supporters' protests seem to have had an impact. Prosecutors yesterday opted to argue the case on lesser charges.

The original charges were based on Article 159 of the Uzbek Criminal Code pertaining to unconstitutional activity. Rights activists say the article is often used to convict alleged members of banned Islamic groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and, in this case, Akramiya. Those convicted under Article 159 face up to 20 years in prison.

The new charges are different. They center on the men's alleged organization of a criminal group. If convicted on the new charges, the accused men could serve up to seven years in prison.

Dilshod Tillakhojaev, an Andijon-based human rights activist and member of the Center for Democratic Initiatives, told RFE/RL that this is not the first time such charges have been reduced in Uzbekistan. He says authorities use strong charges when bringing such cases to court in order to intimidate those accused.

"These [hearings] have one purpose: to frighten defendants who are in fact innocent. They only cooperated with each other and established a foundation. They helped each other and others financially, opened small production businesses," Tillakhojaev said. "It was a very good activity. But there are state politics in the background: the government wants to frighten them and prevent them from getting involved in [Islam] too deeply and becoming extremist. So, these are preventive measures."

The 23 defendants had established a foundation that was involved in charitable activities.

Andijon-based human rights activist Lutfulla Shamsiddinov, who is monitoring the trial, said the foundation's assets are the real reason behind the persecution of its members.

Defendants themselves said that their property has been confiscated.

The chairman of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Talib Yoqubov, told RFE/RL that as the government faces difficulties in meeting its budgetary needs, officials are trying to meet shortfalls by confiscating property from wealthy citizens.

Tillakhojaev says the major reason for changing the original charges was "undoubtedly" that authorities were witnessing the largest protest in Andijon in recent months, and anticipated that heightened discontent would follow if harsh sentences were handed down:

"The protests are big, there is a lot of publicity surrounding the demonstrations," Tillakhojaev said. "Therefore, they changed the charges. This is the main reason. They changed the charges because they were afraid of bigger demonstrations and a subsequent revolt by the people."

Tillakhojaev says this was exactly the reason why the hearing was postponed. The judge, Abduqahhar Mannopov, announced the postponement yesterday evening but did not say when the next hearing will be held. The court is expected to announce its verdict at that time.

Some protesters say they will change their tactics if their peaceful efforts do not succeed.

Reporters today said no protesters were seen outside the court building following the postponement of the hearings.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

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