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Uzbekistan: Freedom Party Nominates Presidential Candidate

Muhammad Solih in Prague in 2005 (RFE/RL) The unregistered Uzbek opposition party Erk (Freedom) nominated its leader, Muhammad Solih, as a candidate for the 2007 presidential election. But Solih cannot run for president under current Uzbek legislation: he has not lived in Uzbekistan for 10 straight years before the election, as the constitution requires, and he was also sentenced to a lengthy prison term in 1999 on charges of extremism. Will the Erk party be able to get around these obstacles so that Solih can be a candidate?

PRAGUE, April 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Erk party has decided on its candidate for the December 2007 presidential poll.

"According to its charter, the Central Council of the Erk Democratic party resolved to nominate its leader, Muhammad Solih, as a candidate for president," says Otanazar Oripov, the secretary-general of Erk. .

Seemingly Ineligible

But there are many hurdles on Solih's path to becoming a candidate.

Officially, he is ineligible to be a candidate since he has lived in exile since 1993 after a government crackdown on the opposition. Current Uzbek legislation bans a candidate who has not lived inside Uzbekistan for 10 consecutive years prior to the election.

He was also sentenced in absentia to a prison term and remains on the Uzbek government's most-wanted list.

Solih, who now lives in Europe, told RFE/RL that he left Uzbekistan "against my own will. I was forced to do so amid harassment and persecution, when my life was threatened."

Claims Charges Are Baseless

As for the charges against him, Solih says, "We are trying to prove that the 1999 court verdict [finding me guilty of extremism] was groundless. The Geneva-based United Nation Human Rights Committee is considering the case. They accepted my appeal, sent a request to the Uzbek court, and are awaiting a response. If we succeed, I will be able to go back to Uzbekistan."

"Erk's decision to nominate Solih for president under the current circumstances is incomprehensible." Yusuf Rasul, exiled Uzbek journalist.

A poet and writer, Solih appeared on Uzbekistan's political scene during perestroika under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. Among other issues, he wanted the Uzbek language to be given the status of an official language in Uzbekistan, and also spoke out about the problems Soviet agricultural policy had on Uzbek cotton crops.

He quickly became popular among many young Uzbeks and formed the Birlik (Unity) movement in 1988. A year later Solih broke from Birlik to form the Erk party, which was officially registered in September 1989.

Solih became a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, the legislature of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and authored Uzbekistan's 1990 "Declaration of Independence." It was adopted by a majority of deputies despite protests from current Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who headed the Communist Party of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic at the time. The document was the first legal step toward independence from the Soviet Union -- with Uzbekistan's independence being proclaimed on August 31, 1991.

Challenging Karimov

In the December 1991 presidential election, Solih challenged Karimov. Officials declared Karimov the winner with Solih getting 12.7 percent of the votes. The Erk party claimed that the election was stolen.

Solih fled Uzbekistan in 1993 due to threats and government repression. Erk was not reregistered and its activities became illegal in Uzbekistan.

Following deadly explosions that killed 16 people in Tashkent in February 1999, the Erk leader was tried in absentia on charges of extremism and sentenced to 15 1/2 years in prison. Uzbek authorities accused him of plotting a coup together with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), citing a meeting Solih had with IMU leaders in 1997.

The IMU was formed in the late 1990s with the aim of overthrowing Karimov's regime and creating a caliphate in Central Asia. The IMU has been on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations since 2000.

Solih has strongly denied any involvement in the bombings. Independent human rights groups have said the charges against Solih were politically motivated.

Apart from overcoming legal obstacles, Solih has to gain support among his voters in Uzbekistan. Some observers say the Erk leader, who has been away from Uzbekistan for 13 years, is not known very well by the electorate.

"Based on my conversations with many people, I, as a journalist, can tell you that people my age -- those who are around 40 -- have lost any hope that there is a force that can confront the Karimov regime," says Alimardon Annaev, an independent Uzbek journalist living in exile in Canada. "They do not believe that Erk or Birlik are able to come up with a program of reforms alternative to Karimov's reforms, be they political, economic, or administrative ones."

Still Known By The Electorate?

However, Solih claims his party has many followers in Uzbekistan. An exiled Uzbek journalist, Yusuf Rasul, agrees with the Erk leader. He runs a website called Isyonkor (Rebel) that has conducted a poll among visitors about the next president of Uzbekistan.

"The poll has been conducted for two months." Rasul said. "Eighty percent of the visitors chose Solih as their preference [for president]. Only 4 percent voted for Karimov and 15 percent said they want someone else."

However, Rasul says Erk's decision to nominate Solih for president under the current circumstances is "incomprehensible."

He says the absence of any legal basis for the opposition's activity and the lack of a political venue for dissent makes it impossible for any unregistered opposition party member, including Solih, to run for president. The only way, Rasul says, is a revolution in which Solih -- or someone else not from Karimov's regime -- can be brought to power by popular demand.

It is not clear yet whether Erk has the financial means to lead an election campaign and whether it would get support from the West.

Solih visited the United States last summer. He held meetings with influential members of Congress and met representatives of key nongovernmental organizations such as the National Democracy Institute, the International Republican Institute, and IFES, a Washington-based election-assistance agency.

U.S. officials said Solih's visit to Washington was coincidental and did not reflect new ties by the U.S. administration with the Uzbek opposition. That statement was made before Karimov evicted U.S. troops from an air base on Uzbek soil.

(RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Khurmat Babadjanov contributed to this report).

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