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Uzbekistan: Human Rights Groups Criticize Convictions

Following last Wednesday's announcement of guilty verdicts against six Uzbeks accused of political subversion, human rights groups have criticized the trial, saying the defendants were tortured during custody and that their confessions were coerced. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan looks at the circumstances surrounding this latest trial connected to the Tashkent bombings in February.

Prague, 23 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Weeks before their trial began, three of the accused men confessed on national television to their alleged crime of trying to overthrow the Uzbek government. It appeared to be an open-and-shut case -- that is, until one of the men, Uzbek writer Mamadali Mahmudov, said he only confessed under the threat of death.

Then allegations of torture were brought to the judge's attention during the trial. A statement signed by all the defendants detail the alleged torture methods -- electric shock, beatings with batons, suffocation with plastic bags, and threats to rape their wives.

On Wednesday, all the defendants were nonetheless found guilty as charged and were given prison sentences ranging from 8 to 15 years.

Cassandra Cavanaugh of Human Rights Watch in New York spoke by telephone to RFE/RL about the verdicts. She says the men presented convincing evidence about their treatment during custody.

Cavanaugh says that not only Uzbekistan, but Ukraine as well, should be held accountable.

"Not only is Uzbekistan guilty of violating this [international] convention [against torture], but Ukraine, which extradited four of the men back in mid-March, we feel should also be called to account before the Council of Europe of which it is a member, [and] before other international bodies to which it has to answer for its clear violations against the convention against torture." All of the defendants were thought to be members of the Erk Democratic Party, a political organization banned in Uzbekistan, and two were relatives of its leader Mohammed Solih, who is now in exile. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has publicly accused Solih of plotting the February bombings in Tashkent, which left 16 dead and more than 100 injured.

But no direct evidence linking the men with the bombing incident was presented by the prosecution. Instead, all were accused under the provisions of Article 159 of the Uzbek criminal code, which outlaws subversive political activities.

Cavanaugh believes the men are innocent of their crimes. They were convicted, she says, because of their political affiliation with the Erk party.

"This has been the highest profile attempt by the government to blame the secular opposition for the bombings and for unrest. The fact that these mens political affiliation was deemed to be a criminal society with intention to overthrow the constitutional order is unique in that sense." Unlike at previous trials connected with the Tashkent bombings, journalists and international observers were barred from attending the trial. The proceedings also took place at Yagiyol court in Tashkent oblast, a good distance from the capital. The defense lawyer and the defendants' relatives were not permitted into the courtroom until moments before the verdicts were announced.

The defense attorney for the men, Hamid Zayniddimov, spoke to RFE/RL outside of the courtroom following the announcement of the verdicts. He argued there were numerous flaws in the prosecution's case. The trial was closed, he said, the judge ignored the torture accusations, the militia did not present proper arrest warrants to the defendants, and the confessions were coerced.

Zayniddimov added that because the men were not charged with direct involvement in the February bombing, no mention of that incident should have been made in connection with the six. He said that the televised confessions were an attempt by the Uzbek government to stack the cards against the defendants before the trial began. Zayniddimov said:

"I think today's court decision is completely groundless and one-sided."

Cavanaugh, whose organization has been monitoring human rights abuses in Uzbekistan for years, said that the case fits a pattern in Uzbekistan:

"This case is just another sad example of Uzbekistan's willingness to trample on the rights of its citizens. And we believe the international community should be outraged and its reaction should be unequivocal and strong."

The Uzbek government has not commented on the concerns raised by international human rights organizations about the case. Repeated attempts by RFE/RL over several days to get comment from officials in the Foreign and Interior Ministries were unsuccessful.

Mohammed Solih, Erk's exiled leader, also declined to comment on the verdict when contacted by RFE/RL.

The six guilty verdicts add to tens of others already sentenced after being convicted of playing a part in the February blasts. Human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Union of Councils of Soviet Jews, say may be hundreds of people still awaiting trial for their alleged roles.

(Akram Faisullo and Biloddin Khasanov from RFE/RL's Uzbek service contributed to this report.)