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Uzbekistan: Another Opposition Leader Given Harsh Sentence

Sanjar Umarov, leader of the opposition group Sunshine Coalition, pictured in June 2005. His supporters say his jailing is a political move (Courtesy Photo) Sanjar Umarov, the leader of the "Sunshine Uzbekistan" opposition coalition, was sentenced today to nearly 11 years in prison for economic crimes, including embezzlement, money laundering, and tax evasion. His supporters, however, say the case is politically motivated. The verdict comes just days after the Sunshine Coalition's coordinator, Nodira Hidoyatova, was sentenced to 10 years in jail on March 1.

PRAGUE, March 6, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Today's hearing was held amid tight security. Aleksei Volosevich, a correspondent for the independent news agency, monitored the trial and spoke to RFE/RL from Tashkent.

"The hearing went the usual way but there were too many soldiers," he said. "They were fully equipped, wearing body armor and helmets, and were standing around the [court] building. Even in the courtroom, there were three soldiers. Umarov's relatives, human rights activists, and journalists attended the trial. There were many journalists. But as the number of seats was limited to about 30 so, for example, the Human Rights Watch's representative couldn't come in."

Accused Of Causing 'Big Economic' Loss

Judge Zokirjon Isaev announced the guilty verdict and sentence, adding that Umarov "headed an organized criminal group and also created several offshore companies to commit economic crimes which resulted in a very big economic loss for Uzbekistan."

Umarov pleaded innocent. His lawyer, Vitaly Krasilovsky, said Umarov's guilt was not proven on any of the charges. He spoke to RFE/RL after the verdict was read.

Since the Andijon bloodshed, Uzbek authorities have held a series of trials resulting in the jailing of more than 180 people accused of involvement in the uprising.

"My reaction [to the verdict] is, of course, negative," he said, laughing. "Today the chairing judge read the verdict on Sanjar Umarov's case and sentenced him to 14.5 years, reducing it by one-fourth under the recent amnesty. But I don't agree with the verdict at all. I am sure that none of the crimes were proven. And, of course, I will write an appeal as soon as I receive the text of the verdict tomorrow."

The judge also ruled that Umarov must pay more than $8 million in fines and banned him from any business activity in Uzbekistan for three years after his release.

Three others were tried along with Umarov and received sentences ranging from three to 10 years in prison. Umarov's elder brother, Abror, was said to be his accomplice in committing the crimes. But no verdict was issued on Abror Umarov.

Umarov The Oligarch

A 49-year-old oil and cotton oligarch with business interests in Uzbekistan and the West, Umarov has headed the Sunshine Uzbekistan since it was formed in April 2005 -- in the wake of a revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and one month before the bloody crackdown of a demonstration in Andijon.

Umarov initially declared the Sunshine Uzbekistan a moderate and secular opposition and called on President Islam Karimov to dismiss the government and form a new cabinet that would implement badly needed economic reforms in the country.

Following the Andijon crackdown in May, when the government troops opened fire on a large crowd of men, women, and children protesters 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 saying: 187 people, mostly "foreign paid terrorists," died in Andijon. Rights groups say the death toll is as high as several hundreds and includes mostly civilians.

Umarov also wrote a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, calling for stronger ties with Russia and declaring his intention to seek a solution to the current political crisis in Uzbekistan.

However, Umarov has denied his intention to lead a "color revolution" in Uzbekistan. Speaking to RFE/RL last May, Umarov made his political stance unequivocal.

'I Am Not A Revolutionary'

"Democracy is a good thing," Umarov said. "Of course. But I don't think it will be correct to build democracy with an empty stomach. The only right [path] is to hold [presidential] elections in compliance with the current constitution. I believe we should act within the constitutional frameworks. As for a revolution, frankly, I am not a revolutionary."

He was detained in late October after visiting the United States. Charges included "large-scale embezzlement." Umarov's company had supplied fuel to the U.S. military base in Karshi-Khanabad, which was closed to U.S. forces in late 2005.

He was a founder of Uzdunrobita, a U.S.-Uzbek telecom joint venture. It reportedly was controlled by Karimov's oldest daughter, Gulnara, until she sold it two years ago to a Russian company.

Some observers have said Umarov joined the opposition because his business was directly threatened by Gulnara Karimova and the president's other cronies who have been increasing their control over various sectors of the Uzbek economy.

Umarov's supporters say that the companies he and his family control came under scrutiny after a series of Internet articles appeared last spring suggesting Umarov's ambition to run for president in elections scheduled for 2007.

Umarov's lawyer, Vitaly Krasilovsky had this to say about the case: "I can only repeat what Umarov himself said in his testimony to the court and when he pleaded innoncent in the court. He said he believed the case was either arranged by his brother's rivals in the oil business or by someone who wanted to eliminate both brothers [Sanjar and Abror Umarov] by using Umarov's public activity."

Sanjar Umarov's sons and his brother Abror -- who have lived and worked in Uzbekistan for the past few years -- fled the country for the U.S. after Umarov's arrest.

Rights Group: An Attack On Civil Society

The sentence came less than a week after another active member of the Sunshine coalition, Nodira Hidoyatova, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for economic crimes.

Independent observers and human rights activists insist that there are political reasons behind the trials. Human Rights Watch said last month that the trials against Umarov and Hidoyatova were "apparently politically motivated."

And the New York-based International League for Human Rights also said the charges against Hidoyatova and Umarov are politically motivated and condemned the Uzbek government's attacks on civil society and the opposition.

Since the Andijon bloodshed, Uzbek authorities have held a series of trials resulting in the jailing of more than 180 people accused of involvement in the uprising.

The list of those imprisoned also includes Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, a human rights activist from Andijon sentenced in a secret trial to seven years in prison, and Mutabar Tojiboeva, an activist from Ferghana, whose verdict is also due out today.

Umarov, a physicist, is the son of a well-known academician -- physicist Giyas Umarov -- and has a doctorate in physics. He is married with five children. Most of them have grown up in the United States, where Umarov moved his family some years ago as his business expanded and part of it was transferred abroad.

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