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Uzbekistan: Message In A Courtroom -- The Andijon Trial

Defendant during the trial If the purpose of a trial is to establish guilt or innocence, the judicial proceedings currently under way in Uzbekistan's Supreme Court achieved their aim on the very first day. On 20 September, court went into session and 15 men accused of active involvement in the violence that rocked Andijon on 12-13 May pronounced themselves guilty as charged -- of murder, terrorism, hostage-taking, an attempt to overthrow the country's constitutional system, and myriad other crimes. But as the fact of the trial's continuation indicates, and as its substance has made abundantly clear, it is not about guilt, innocence, or even the actions of 15 men.

Since the defendants have already admitted their guilt, the trial has consisted primarily of their testimony. That testimony has reiterated and reinforced a version of events in Andijon presented by the Prosecutor-General's Office to a parliamentary commission on 5-6 September and by First Deputy Prosecutor-General Anvar Nabiev at a briefing for journalists on 15 September. Boiled down to its basic elements, the proffered explanation of what happened in Andijon on 12-13 May is that a vast conspiracy involving -- in no particular order -- the BBC, RFE/RL, Chechen military instructors, NGOs, training camps in Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, and extremists linked to Al-Qaeda aimed to spark a Georgia/Ukraine/Kyrgyz-style revolution in Andijon in order to transform Uzbekistan into an Islamic state that would serve as the launching pad for a drive to establish a worldwide caliphate.

Case For The Prosecution

Prosecutors laid out the basics in an indictment on 20 September, the first day of the trial. They said that the accused were members of an alleged extremist group called Akramiya with links to the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (formerly known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group that developed close links with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led military operation in 2001) and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Prosecutors also alleged that BBC correspondent Matluba Azamatova, Institute for War and Peace Reporting correspondent Galima Bukharbaeva, and RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky had advance knowledge of the violence about to break out in Andijon.

Testimony from the defendants provided direct and indirect confirmation of these claims. Moydin Sobirov testified on 21 September that unidentified foreign media outlets conspired with the rebels, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. According to Sobirov, "Foreign defenders and the media supported our goals. Following the advice of foreign media, protests were organized near the Andijon court [in the lead-up to the violence on 12-13 May] in order to destabilize Uzbekistan." On 27 September, Ilhomjon Hojiev told the court that Tohir Yoldoshev, the fugitive leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a known consort of Osama Bin Laden, sent $200,000 to fund the operation. Hojiev received the money in Russia from an individual he identified as Qobilhoji Qosimkhojaev, who requested that the rebels call him once they started their operations so that he could pass the information on to Yoldoshev.

Tohir Yoldoshev's IMU, officially listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, was supposedly not the accused militants' sole source of financial support. Tavakkal Hojiev testified on 26 September that he heard from Qobil Parpiev, who has been identified by Uzbek authorities as one of the masterminds behind the violence, that the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent provided funds for the uprising. AP quoted Hojiev as saying, "I was told that our people received money from the American embassy."

On 22 September, Abdulhafiz Ghoziev testified that a Chechen militant provided military training to Akramiya members in Osh, Kyrgyzstan before the violence in May, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Three of the defendants are Kyrgyz citizens. One of them, Lochinbek Imonqulov, told the court on 23 September that on 13 May he saw "most of my brothers from Osh [located in southern Kyrgyzstan] with pistols and automatic weapons in their hands. Seventy of us had arrived from Kyrgyzstan that day." Moydin Sobirov also testified on 21 September that "spiritual leader" Akrom Mamadaliev brought "80 armed individuals and 25 unarmed people" from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan to take part in the violence in Andijon.

The goal the rebels pursued was as global as the elements of the conspiracy were disparate. As Muhammadshokir Ortiqov testified on 23 September, he and his fellow extremists strove for "the creation of a caliphate, first in Uzbekistan, and then in the whole world."

Broader Messages

The preceding suggests that the purpose of this judicial exercise warrants somewhat more scrutiny than its plausibility. As was noted at the outset, guilt and innocence are not at issue, for the defendants have all confessed their guilt. What is at issue becomes clearer if the trial is viewed not in terms of its claims and the confessions that support them, but in terms of the broader messages they imply.

One message is that the most important lesson of the violence in Andijon was that it represented an organized threat to state power and that the state reacted responsibly. This is at variance with the stance taken by Western governments and international organizations, which did not deny that violent unrest took place in Andijon but focused on subsequent eyewitness accounts that the government employed grotesquely disproportionate force to quell the unrest, possibly killing hundreds. Reports of a massacre prompted calls for an international inquiry from numerous quarters, including the U.S. government.

The Uzbek government, which maintains that 187 people were killed in the violence and blames militants for civilian deaths, has rejected calls for an international investigation and refused to consider the possibility that security forces overreacted to unrest. The first trial of Andijon defendants has reinforced that message with its focus on the threat to state power from extremists bent on the creation of a caliphate. Moreover, defendants' testimony has specifically rebutted the allegations that formed the core of the Western response to the Andijon violence. Abdubois Ibragimov told the court on 23 September that soldiers did not fire at unarmed civilians, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Abdulhafiz Ghoziev testified on 22 September that militants, not government forces, were responsible for the violence. He said, "I didn't see any soldiers firing. Quite the opposite, our brothers showed that they didn't know how to use weapons and didn't have any experience. We shot [each other] as a result of indiscriminate firing."

This is not the only testimony that appears to come in response to allegations of government wrongdoing. Rights organizations, in particular the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), have documented considerable evidence that coerced testimony formed the cornerstone of previous trials of alleged militants. On 20 September, the same day the trial began, HRW issued a report ("Burying the Truth: Uzbekistan rewrites the story of the Andijon massacre") that it described on its website as containing "numerous first-hand testimonies of a brutal police campaign forcing people to 'confess' that they belong to extremist religious organizations, that the protests in Andijan were violent, and that the protesters were armed." In testimony on 22 September, Azizbek Yusupov seemed to parry those very charges, telling the court that "despite the terrorist acts I committed, as [members of the alleged extremist movement] Akramiya have explained, there was no torture during the investigation." He stressed, "Law enforcement officers treated me with proper attention to human rights."

Dark Forces

Another message the trial sends is that Uzbekistan now faces a daunting array of increasingly specific threats. In the trials that followed terror attacks in 2004, the religious extremists Uzbekistan's government has traditionally identified as its gravest menace spoke of shadowy operational links to international terror groups and ideological ties to Hizb ut-Tahrir. In a 29 March 2004 address to the nation, President Islam Karimov saw "dark forces" at work in the violence then unfolding in Tashkent. But the current trial, with its insinuations of IMU and U.S. embassy money sloshing through Kyrgyz training camps staffed by Chechen instructors, adds dastardly details to the "dark forces" even as it expands their scope.

The "revelation" of U.S. funding for the Andijon rebels, perhaps the most sensational aspect of the trial thus far, also sent the most nuanced message. While it cast the U.S. role in Uzbekistan in a sinister light, it did so obliquely -- Tavakkal Hojiev did not give a firsthand account, but rather said that he "heard" from Qobil Parpiev, currently in hiding at an unknown location, that the transfer of funds took place. Moreover, by curious coincidence, Hojiev's incendiary testimony emerged on the same day that a high-ranking U.S. delegation arrived in Tashkent for talks with President Islam Karimov.

Against this inauspicious backdrop, initial reports indicated that the negotiations produced no breakthroughs. In remarks to journalists after a 27 September meeting with Karimov, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Daniel Fried, who led the U.S. delegation, confirmed that the United States will comply with a recent Uzbek request to vacate the U.S. air base in Karshi-Khanabad. He also said that democratic principles are the bedrock of U.S. cooperation with other countries and dismissed the various accusations against the United States that the trial has featured, reported. According to the BBC, Fried described the specific allegation that the U.S. funded unrest in Andijon as "ludicrous," adding, "The assertion that the US supports an attack by Islamic extremists after fighting four years against exactly such people is not credible."

In the end, however, the primary message of the trial is directed at the citizens of Uzbekistan. The trial tells them that the rebels in Andijon were willing and able to resort to violence and had far-flung, well-heeled supporters. Yet it also tells them that for all this the rebels' evil plans came to naught, because they now await justice caged in a courtroom, and that their will did not hold, because they have all confessed their guilt. The message this sends is that the state stands strong with President Karimov at the helm. But just as time will eventually test the accuracy of the trial's claims, so too will it reveal the credibility of its messages.

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