PRAGUE, 1 March 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The presiding judge in Nodira Hidoyatova's case, Zokirjon Isaev, ruled that Hidoyatova should be imprisoned for 10 years.
Prosecutors were seeking a 12-year sentence.
The court found Hidoyatova guilty of committing "heavy and especially heavy crimes that have damaged the [Uzbek] state," Isaev said. The seven charges included tax evasion, money laundering, and membership in an organized criminal group, and ruled that her company, Buyuk Siymolar, must pay $230,000 in back taxes. The judge also said Hidoyatova would be banned from holding any "position of responsibility" for three years after her release.
The charges against Buyuk Siymolar, Hidoyatova's company, are based mainly on alleged unpaid taxes on dozens of tons of buckwheat that she was found to have imported from Russia three years ago through her company.
A defense lawyer, Oleg Babenko, said she is innocent of the charges and that her guilt "was absolutely not proven."
Surat Ikramov, the head of the Center for Human Rights Initiatives in Tashkent, has been monitoring the trial since it started in late January. He agrees with the defense lawyer and told RFE/RL that Hidoyatova's case is politically motivated.
"The charges were not proven, absolutely not," he said. "Many observers in the courtroom saw that no charge was proved. I can see that the conviction and sentencing of Nodira Hidoyatova was done according to an order from above. The main reason behind this is that she worked for the Sunshine [Uzbekistan] coalition since last April."
Hidoyatova, 38, has been a coordinator for the Sunshine Uzbekistan opposition coalition since it was formed in April 2005 -- in the wake of a revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and one month before the bloody dispersal of a demonstration in Andijon.
After the Andijon crackdown, when government troops opened fire on a large crowd of men, women, and children after armed militants seized a government building, the Sunshine coalition became vocal in its criticism of the Uzbek government. It echoed calls from the United States and the European Union to conduct an independent probe into the bloodshed that the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch labeled a "massacre." The Uzbek government rejected appeals for an independent investigation of the events, saying that 187 people, mostly "foreign-paid terrorists," died in Andijon. Others say that several hundred people were killed, the overwhelming majority of them civilians.
Hidoyatova was arrested in December at Tashkent's international airport as she returned from Moscow. Russian media reported that Hidoyatova had held a news conference in Moscow calling on Russia to drop its support for Uzbek President Karimov and acknowledge the widespread human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
Hidoyatova is a mother of a teenager and a young son. Her daughter, 16-year-old Malika, spoke to RFE/RL after the verdict was read.
"She is a very brave woman, and she handled the trial strongly," she said. "Of course, she was upset because until the very last moment, she hoped that she would be released because of her four-year-old son, who needs a mother's care and love. But unfortunately [that was not the case].... [Nevertheless, she] was standing there with her head up, smiling. But as it's damp [in her cell], she has been ill and lost weight."
Hidoyatova has been arrested for her political activity in the past. A 1995 arrest followed her assistance to the former Uzbek ambassador to the United States, Babur Malikov, who escaped the country and went into exile and opposition to Karimov's government. At the time of her arrest, Hidoyatova was four months pregnant but was forced to have an abortion while in prison.
Others Oppositionists Prosecuted
Hidoyatova is not the only member of the Sunshine coalition to be prosecuted.
Sanjar Umarov, the coalition's chairman and an oligarch with business interests in Uzbekistan and the West, was detained in late October and faces similar charges in a trial that began in January.
The same judge was expected to issue a verdict on Umarov's case today, but the trial has been adjourned until 6 March.
Prosecutors are asking for 18 years in jail for Umarov, but they have said that sentence could be reduced to 13 years under a recent amnesty.
Independent observers and human rights activists insist that there are political reasons behind the trials of both opposition activists.
Human Rights Watch said last month that Hidoyatova's case and the ongoing trial against Umarov are "apparently political motivated."
Hidoyatova's sister, Nigora, the leader of the unregistered Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) opposition party, called Hidoyatova's proceedings a "show trial."
Malika describes how the hearings proceeded. "The trial was absolutely biased," she said. "The judges ignored everything we said or showed to them. They didn't listen to us or to our lawyer. Whenever the lawyer showed them something, they said: 'No, we won't take it into consideration as it is not proven, it's not evidence.' They knew they should do things in a certain way. I had some hope, but yet I knew they would sentence her to a prison term. When you are in the courtroom, you realize this."
U.S. officials have also voiced concern over Hidoyatova's fate. The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Julie Finley, told the OSCE's Permanent Council on 22 December in Vienna that "the United States noted with concern the arrest of Uzbek opposition leader Nodira Hidoyatova," saying that "past government attempts to use the Uzbek legal system in order to blunt political opposition are disturbing, and we fear this practice is continuing."
She expressed hope that Hidoyatova would be treated according to international norms and that she will have full access to her lawyers and family. "We again remind the government of Uzbekistan of its human-dimension commitments and treaty obligations, which include due process protections, prohibitions on torture, arbitrary arrest or detention, and the freedom of peaceful expression," the U.S. official said.
Ikramov, who has monitored many hearings on economic crimes, says Hidoyatova's sentence is harsher than that of many others sentenced on similar charges. He added that Hidoyatova has not been able to see her family since she was arrested.
"We've monitored many economic trials," he said. "We have seen many entrepreneurs being sentenced to lengthy prison terms in arbitrary trials. So I had no doubts [that Hidoyatova would be imprisoned]. But I didn't expect it to be a 10-year term. It's too long. I expected a five-six year term even though I knew it was ordered from above. Courts are not independent in Uzbekistan these days."
Hidoyatova's lawyer, Babenko, said they will appeal the verdict.