Prague, 13 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov, head of the Andijon-based Appelyatsiya (Appeal) rights group, monitored the trial of the 23 businessmen that led to the 13 May uprising.
The 52-year-old became well-known as he gave numerous interviews to international media outlets, including RFE/RL. He spoke out condemning the Uzbek government troops' violent actions against protesters as "genocide" and giving a far higher death toll than the government's figure. A week later, he was arrested.
A spokesman for Uzbekistan's National Security Service, Olimjon Turakulov, said at the time that Zaynobiddinov was involved in the planning of the uprising.
Zaynobiddinov's family members have received little information about his case. Last week, they learned the trial had already started near Tashkent.
His 75-year-old mother was the only person allowed to attend hearings. However, she was unable to do so as the family has received no information about the location of the trial.
Zaynobiddinov's son Ilhomjon said his grandmother went to several regional courts near Tashkent and to the city police department in quest for her son, but to no avail. "My grandmother went to Quyi-chirchiq regional court [near Tashkent]. But there were no hearings held there," he said. "She asked about a judge whose name was mentioned in a letter [we received] from a bar association. They said he would be in next day. She went there next day and was told the judge went on vacation. Others said there was no trial."
Zaynobiddinov's government-appointed lawyer, Mavluda Akhmedova, refused to speak to RFE/RL.
Surat Ikramov, a Tashkent-based independent human-rights activist, has also been searching for Zaynobiddinov. He told RFE/RL that he went to a regional court near Tashkent where another closed trial of 15 people was being held on 12 January.
"I went there and tried to find out whether Saidjahon was among the defendants," Ikramov said. "But it was impossible as police cordoned off the court building. However, I got information from another source that the trial of Saidjahon Zaynobiddinov had already finished and he was sentenced to seven years in prison. But this information has yet to be confirmed."
More than 150 people have been convicted in Uzbekistan in connection with the Andijon violence. All but one of the trials have been held behind closed doors.
Foreign journalists accredited by the Uzbek Foreign Ministry were allowed to make a single visit to one of the closed-door hearings in early December, following criticism by human rights watchdogs.
Uzbek authorities deny that hearings have been held behind closed doors, saying only trials of those charged with sexual crimes or concerning state secrets are closed.
Svetlana Ortiqova, a spokeswoman for Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General's Office, reiterated that point in an interview with RFE/RL. Concerning Zaynobiddinov's trial, she said: "All trials are open. At least, his mother is present, right? If the trial were closed, his mother would not have been let in the courtroom. You see, the trial is not something where everyone who wants to attend can do so. The chief judge decides who can attend the hearing because different issues may be discussed, different situation may come up."
Human rights watchdogs and foreign governments have criticized the arrest of Zaynobiddinov. Maisy Weicherding, a London-based Central Asia researcher with Amnesty International, told RFE/RL that the report of a seven-year prison sentence, if true, is "shocking."
"I’ve been worried that this might happen because, you know, there were all these trials in December that were held in secret with no one allowed access and no names of defendants made public," Weicherding said. "So, I think my fear was that Saidjahon was actually amongst some of those defendants. I am obviously shocked by a sentence of seven years. We believe that he should be released unconditionally because we believe he is a prisoner of conscience."
New York-based Human Right Watch condemned the arrest and has called on the international community to put pressure on the Uzbek government to ensure the safety of Zaynobiddinov and other human rights activists who could be subject to retribution.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking soon after the first post-Andijon arrests, called for the release of those held unless there is credible evidence of criminal actions. "Those arrested must be given due process in accordance with international standards including credible evidence of criminal behavior for them to continue to be imprisoned," he said. "If such evidence is not forthcoming, those detained should be released."
The UN's High Commissioner on Human Rights criticized Uzbekistan's practice of closed trials and said in late December that the Andijon trials should be observed by international monitors to ensure that the rights of defendants are not violated.
Rights watchdogs say torture is a widespread practice in Uzbekistan’s prisons and detention facilities. Amnesty's Weicherding said Zaynobiddinov has likely been ill-treated in detention.
Zaynobiddinov's son Ilhomjon told RFE/RL about the only time he saw his father in late July, after the arrest. "We contacted all institutions in search of [my father]. Then, we got an unexpected phone call from Tashkent. A man introduced himself as an investigator from the MVD [Interior Ministry] and said the trial was due to start in few days. He asked me to bring my father's suit and some food. I took the suit, food and went to Tashkent. I was told to go to the MVD. So I did. My father was in the MVD basement. We went some six floors down on the elevator. That was the last time I saw him. He looked thinner than usual," Ilhomjon said.
Meanwhile, in another closed trial, five members of the Birlik unregistered opposition party were sentenced to various prison terms on 12 January. They were detained after the Andijon bloodshed and accused of involvement in the uprising. Four of them were released on suspended sentence.
(RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report).