But from a cage in a Tashkent courtroom on May 8, Niyazova made a "confession" that amounted to an apparent repudiation of all she stands for. She even criticized Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based rights organization for which she had worked as a translator.
In exchange, the appeal court reduced her seven-year prison term to a three-year suspended sentence.
Holly Cartner, Central Asia program director for Human Rights Watch, tells RFE/RL that it was a classic case of a repressive regime extracting a false confession from a political dissident:
"Her seven-year sentence was suspended after she confessed to all the charges that she has initially denied. This was clearly something that she had to do as a condition of having the sentence commuted," Cartner says.
The 'Queen Of Truth'
Forced confessions have a long history. Repressive regimes around the world have used them, at different times in history, as propaganda tools to bolster their hold on power.
For centuries in the pre-industrial West, confession was held to be the queen of truth. The Latin phrase "Confessio est regina probationum" justified the use of forced confessions.
Nowadays, in many parts of the world, they are synonymous with injustice itself, obvious propaganda ploys by repressive regimes, elevated to something of an art form in the old Soviet bloc.
The 1948 Declaration on Human Rights put a significant dent in their legal acceptance in the West but still not in many other places around the world, such as Uzbekistan.
Forced Confessions 'An Act Of Humiliation'
Rights advocates have long accused Tashkent of obtaining forced confessions through threats against family, torture, or even drugs. Uzbek authorities deny this.
But Cartner is skeptical. She sees such methods, widely practiced throughout the Soviet bloc, as alive and well in Uzbekistan.
"It’s something that is perhaps viewed by the government as a face-saving technique when it ultimately reduces a sentence," she says. "And it’s also an act of humiliation for the person who’s being put through this, in this case, Umida."
Uzbekistan faced similar accusations in 2005, when 15 men were sentenced after a series of "show trials." The men "confessed" to terrorism and other charges related to a massacre in the city ofAndijon, where Uzbek authorities say 187 people died but activists maintain hundreds were killed mostly by government forces.
Not Just Uzbekistan
To be sure, the use of forced confessions is not unique to Uzbekistan.
Recently, several British service personnel detained by Iran "confessed" on television to violating Iran’s territorial waters. Once released, however, several of them acknowledged having been coerced into making false confessions.
Jan Machacek is a citizen of the European Union, where such practices are clearly illegal. Yet the Czech columnist for the Prague daily "Hospodarske noviny" knows all about coerced confessions.
They were common in communist Czechoslovakia, Machacek says, and the government’s aims in using such methods were clear.
"There are two reasons: to demonstrate power, it’s one thing, to demonstrate strength somehow; but also to provoke fear, [to show that] any resistance doesn’t make sense when such a courageous person is actually admitting that she was guilty or he was guilty," Machacek says.
Machacek acknowledges that to a large extent, the practice worked. In Czechoslovakia, millions of people feared losing their jobs if they didn’t sign written statements in support of the regime, particularly after the Warsaw Pact invaded the country in 1968 to put down the "Prague Spring" reform movement:
"Many people knew that these were false confessions, but the message was clear: if you are in this situation, you should also falsely confess because it would help you survive or help you keep your job," Machacek says. "So in a totalitarian regime, it’s not real important what you think, what is in your mind or what you say in your closed family circle. It is important how you behave in public."
Niyazova Sentence Condemned
Niyazova was detained in December 2006 while returning home from neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
On May 1, a court in Tashkent sentenced her to seven years in prison on charges of illegal border crossing, carrying contraband, and fostering unrest with the help of foreign funding. Authorities found articles and information in her laptop about the killings in Andijon in May 2005.
The United States, the European Union, the OSCE, and rights group condemned the sentence.
Before her confession, Niyazova had denied all charges.
But to what extent are ordinary Uzbeks aware of Niyazova’s predicament? Cartner of Human Rights Watch says the picture is probably mixed.
"Quite a few people are very aware of what the practice is, and so know that this has no connection to reality," she says. "But many people in Uzbekistan have no access to any kinds of independent information, and have no critical or contrary versions to what the state information is. For a large percentage of the population, I think, it’s very difficult to have any basis for assessing this kind of information. And in fact, they may believe that this is true."
The Andijon killings prompted a European Union arms embargo and other sanctions against Tashkent. Last week, EU president Germany said the Niyazova case could affect an upcoming decision on whether to renew sanctions.
When EU officials meet on May 14 to discuss that decision, it’s unlikely they will see Niyazova’s confession as "the queen of truth."
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