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Uzbekistan: Human Rights Watch Calls Tashkent Trials Unfair

Last month more than 70 people in Uzbekistan were sentenced to prison for allegedly participating in or abetting armed incursions by Islamic militants. All of those sentenced had lived in villages briefly occupied by the militants. A representative of the international organization Human Rights Watch was present in Tashkent during the trials and has doubts about their fairness. She spoke recently with RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier:

Prague, 4 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In Uzbekistan last month, more than 70 men were tried on charges related to incursions by armed militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. The men were accused of aiding the militants. In legal proceedings criticized by international human rights organizations, all of the men were found guilty and given prison terms of up to 18 years.

Marie Struthers is a consultant for the New York-based rights organization Human Rights Watch. Struthers attended one of the trials and describes to RFE/RL how serious the charges were against the 20 men being judged.

"[The 20 defendants] were initially charged with -- the men [I witnessed] in my courthouse -- with 14 to 15 articles each, including terrorism, aggression, inciting national, ethnic and religious hatred, and murder. Two of the articles carry the possibility of the death penalty."

Struthers says the men, mainly shepherds and schoolteachers, were from mountain villages near Uzbekistan's southeastern border with Tajikistan. The villages were occupied briefly by the militants last August when they began their campaign. Later, the Uzbek army evacuated the villages and then bombed them. The men, along with some 1,100 of their relatives and friends, were relocated to areas away from the border.

But the Uzbek authorities suspected some of the villagers had helped the militants, and acted on their suspicions by indicting them. Struthers says Uzbek state prosecutors could not prove some of the original charges against the men at the trial she attended. That did not stop them, she says, from being found guilty of other charges.

"Later on, when the verdict came, around four to five articles were dropped from each charge, including aggression. Straight murder was changed to complicity in murderous acts, which means that the state was unable to prove they were directly responsible." Struthers says the trial process was hasty and flawed.

"[The trial] was astonishingly rapid. The 20 men were tried in all of five days. Only a half-day was devoted to the defense of [all] the accused. There was no material evidence presented by the government of collaboration with the rebels, which is very [serious] because the initial indictment carried the possibility of the death penalty."

Struthers also says the defendants complained they were tortured into confessing and that some of them even showed the court their injuries.

"Two or three of the defendants, at the time they gave testimony in the courthouse, did remove articles of clothing right there in the courthouse and show where they had been tortured. They also described in detail the torture methods to which they had been subjected."

The men on trial in June were rounded up earlier this year. In contrast to trials that followed the February 1999 Tashkent bombings and later trials against suspected IMU members or sympathizers, last month's proceedings received little publicity in Uzbekistan. They were conducted on the outskirts of the capital, Tashkent, and few relatives or observers were allowed inside the courtroom.

Struthers says it was particularly frustrating for the defendant's relatives.

"They [the relatives] were in many cases actually prevented from reaching Tashkent to attend the trials. There was an attempt by local authorities to prevent them from traveling there and prevent information from getting out. There was harassment as well from authorities in Tashkent conducted against family members. Some of them were asked to leave a hotel where they were staying. I know that police visited at least two or three family members in private homes where they were staying and asked them to leave."

The lack of publicity could be an indication that the Uzbek authorities are sensitive to the effect the trials would have on the country's image abroad. In earlier trials, the government seemed more anxious to provide media coverage as proof the Uzbek government was fighting what it called "terrorism" and as a warning to Uzbekistan's citizens to avoid contact with suspected enemies of the state.

All of the trials -- those of 1999 as well as this year's -- were criticized by international human rights groups. Trials against alleged Tashkent bombers and their alleged accomplices in 1999 did not stop incursions by the IMU later that year or in 2000.

In addition, more than 100 wives and other female relatives of those sentenced to jail have held demonstrations against the sentences. Such demonstrations were held this last weekend in the eastern city of Andean and in Tashkent.