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Uzbekistan: Supreme Court Gives Severe Sentences To Bombers

This is the first of two features on the trial which ended this week in Tashkent following the February bombings in the Uzbek capital. The first feature looks at the trial itself and initial responses to it. The second focuses on what the trial may indicate about the threat from terrorism in Central Asia.

Prague, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Early this week, Uzbekistan's Supreme Court passed sentences ranging from execution to long prison terms on 22 men accused of participating in deadly bombings four-and-a-half months ago in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Some were also on trial for 12 murders in eastern Uzbekistan in 1997.

The court called the February 16 attacks an attempt on the life of the country's president. Six cars loaded with explosives began exploding as President Islam Karimov was arriving at the government building in downtown Tashkent to attend a meeting of his cabinet. The bombs went off outside the government building, the National Security Committee building and near the airport, leaving 16 people dead and over 100 injured.

The Uzbek government quickly blamed the blasts on Islamic extremist groups. An investigation led to the arrests and detainment of hundreds of people and drew complaints from Uzbekistan's political opposition and international human-rights organizations. They said that Karimov and the government were using the incident to further stamp out potential opposition.

More suspects are still awaiting trial. Of the 22 men already tried by the court, six will be executed by firing squad, eight will serve 20 years in prison and the other eight between 10 to 18 years in prison.

Judge Abdusamat Polvanzode read out the sentences, saying: "In 1992, the defendants joined an extremist religious organization and started to preach their ideas of jihad for the seizure of power, a state revolution and the murder of President Karimov." Although all those tried were found guilty, they have the right to appeal within 10 days time. But in speaking about the defendants' confessions, Judge Palvanzode hinted that they can not expect much in the way of clemency:

"[Their guilt] all became clear during the investigation and examinations. Everyone confessed. None of the allegations were refuted."

The trial was open to the media, to human rights organizations and to those whose relatives were killed or injured in the bombing. Human rights organizations charged before the trial started that the legal process was nothing more than a show, the verdicts predetermined and the testimony coerced.

Families of the accused, who had to wait outside the court building, also had critical views of the trial process. The mother of Karim Uzakov, who was sentenced to 15 years in jail, said: "Now that I have seen such injustice...I am starting to lose my faith in the state."

Bakhrom Abdullayev was sentenced to death. His father said Bakhrom had been in jail since October 1998, when he was arrested in Turkmenistan for possessing a fake passport. The elder Abdullayev said his son was simply a religious man who had been raised in a Muslim household. He spoke with RFE/RL outside the courthouse shortly after the verdict against his son was announced.

"Why is he imprisoned? What was his guilt, teaching from the Koran? Why did they add his name to the group responsible for the February 16 bombing? He had already been in jail eight months."

The mother of another defendant sentenced to death wailed outside the courthouse:

"My son is innocent! If he was guilty [the verdict] would have been all right but he is innocent. His friend came over and spent the night and for this my son received the death penalty."

The Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan is said to be a hotbed of Islamic extremism. There were several murders in the area two years ago. But when five policemen were killed there toward the end of 1997 it finally triggered the Uzbek government's crack-down on religious groups.

That campaign has been going on ever since. The trial of the 22 gave new impetus to the campaign, as the defendants were allegedly all members of religious groups, mainly Hizbi Takhriri and Wahhabis.

More trials for the bombings on February 16 will soon follow. Even some policemen will appear as defendants, accused of negligence in not recognizing terrorists in the heart of a city of 2.5 million inhabitants.

(Yakub Turan, Zamira Echanova, Akhram Faisullo and Furkatbek Yakvalkhojayev of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)