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Kyrgyzstan: Court Sentences IMU Member To 25 Years In Prison

A court in southern Kyrgyzstan has sentenced a 41-year-old Kyrgyz man to 25 years in prison on charges of terrorism, hostage taking, and membership in a banned group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU.

Prague, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A court in Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken Oblast yesterday handed down a guilty verdict in the trial of Sherali Akbotoev, a self-professed senior member of the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has been linked to the Al- Qaeda terrorist network.

Following a two-day trial on charges of terrorism, hostage taking, and membership in a banned organization, the 41-year-old Akbotoev was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In addition to acknowledging his involvement in the IMU -- which emerged in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and has since drawn members from the neighboring Central Asian states -- Akbotoev acknowledged he fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan before the ruling militia was ousted in the fall of 2001. But Akbotoev's lawyer, Arstan Aijigitov, said the sentence is unfair nonetheless.

"Akbotoev himself agrees [with the accusations] but he has participated [in the IMU activities] because he was forced to do so because of threats against his family. As he said, he had no choice but to cooperate. And just as he voluntarily came back to Kyrgyzstan, he has voluntarily stopped his participation [in the hostilities]. Taking these facts into consideration, he has asked not to be punished," Aijigitov said.

Akbotoev said he willingly went to the Kyrgyz Embassy in Tehran following the routing of the Taliban. But state security officials say he was detained on visa violations -- in an unspecified country -- and forcibly extradited to Kyrgyzstan last May.

Akbotoev argued that even his membership in the IMU was involuntary. During his trial he said he was forced by IMU members to join the radical group while acting as a mediator helping free hostages from IMU militants in Batken Oblast in August 1999. He said he had been sent to mediate the crisis by Kyrgyz special services.

"[Representatives from special services] told me, 'We will send you, a citizen, [to mediate the hostage crisis], because if we send servicemen, they will detain them as well. They asked me to save these people. It was the duty of the government to free the [head of Batken Oblast] first. Despite the difficulties, I accomplished this task. And I repeat that I fully accomplished this duty: I released the hostages, and accomplished other special tasks," Akbotoev said.

The IMU in 1999 and 2000 launched cross-border incursions into Batken Oblast from Afghanistan across neighboring Tajikistan. In August 1999, IMU militants entered southern Kyrgyzstan, where they captured a village and hostages, and threatened to attack Uzbekistan. The following year, the IMU again infiltrated southern Kyrgyzstan, and reached mountainous areas just outside the Uzbek capital Tashkent.

Security officials say Akbotoev, who had received religious education in Uzbekistan in the 1980s, rose fast to prominence within the IMU to become a spokesman for the group's field commander, Djuma Namangani. Namangani is believed to have been killed in fighting in northern Afghanistan in 2001, where the IMU fought alongside its Taliban allies against the Northern Alliance.

The IMU's original goal was to overthrow Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov and to replace his secular government with an Islamic state. Over time, the group has expanded its goal to include the creation of an Islamic state encompassing all of Central Asia.

The United States designated the IMU as a terrorist organization in 2000 following the kidnapping of four American mountain climbers in southern Kyrgyzstan.

(Ainura Asankojoeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)