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Uzbekistan: Court Rulings Do Little To Mend Tashkent's Reputation As Rights Abuser

Last week the Uzbek government added two new incidents to its growing list of apparent rights abuses. An independent journalist was jailed and the death sentence of an alleged Islamic militant was upheld.

Prague, 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last week was a bad one for Uzbekistan's human rights record. International rights organizations were dealt a double blow when independent journalist Ruslan Sharipov was sentenced to jail and Iskandar Khudoiberganov, an alleged Islamic militant, lost his death-sentence appeal.

Khudoiberganov was arrested in 2000 during a government crackdown on Islamic groups suspected of involvement in the February 1999 Tashkent bombings that killed 16 people. Prosecutors accused Khudoiberganov of undergoing terrorist training in Chechnya and Tajikistan, and he eventually confessed to being a member of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). He was convicted at the end of 2002 and sentenced to death.

Khudoiberganov's sister Dilobar has campaigned for her brother's release, speaking to the Western press and attempting to distribute leaflets highlighting her brother's plight. Dilobar said Iskandar was guilty of nothing more than "attending the mosque and reading prayers." She claims her brother was tortured into confessing.

Matilda Bogner is the director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) office in Tashkent. She followed Khudoiberganov's case closely and spoke with his lawyers often during the original trial. Bogner told RFE/RL the prosecution did not appear to have much evidence to support its case.

"There were many evidentiary problems, including that the family says Iskandar Khudoiberganov was in Tashkent at the time that he was supposed to be in Chechnya being trained," Bogner said. "And they even got statements from the university that he was attending that he was attending classes at the time he was supposed to be in Chechnya. The family had evidence that his child was conceived and born during the year he was supposed to be in Chechnya. So there was strong evidence that he was in fact in Tashkent, rather than in Chechnya."

Uzbekistan's Supreme Court last week rejected Khudoiberganov's appeal, and some observers fear he may already have been executed. Bogner said Uzbek authorities often allow considerable time to pass before announcing that an execution has been carried out.

"In Uzbekistan, families [sometimes] don't receive notification at all, or don't receive it at the time of the execution -- or will only receive it several weeks, months, or even in some cases, years later," she said. "This case has been one that has been followed quite closely by people in the international community. I think that the authorities would have to give some indication at least within weeks of his being executed, although you can never tell."

Bogner said Khudoiberganov could get a presidential stay of execution, but to her knowledge that had never happened before in Uzbekistan.

Ruslan Sharipov, a 25-year-old journalist and human rights activist, posted his articles on the Internet. Many of his articles were critical of the government, particularly the conduct of police and Interior Ministry departments in certain Tashkent districts. He was detained in late May on charges of homosexual conduct. Later, charges were added of involving minors in "antisocial behavior" and having sexual relations with minors.

HRW's Bogner said her organization considered the charges against Sharipov -- who is open about his homosexuality -- to be politically motivated from the start. "We consider that the case was brought against him for political reasons, a politically motivated case," she said. "He was an independent journalist and a human rights activist and most of his articles that he published, both through news agencies and independently just through the Internet, were on human rights issues and about human rights abuses. And in the last year or so of his career, he particularly focused on police corruption."

Bogner said it was clear that authorities were "unhappy" with Sharipov's articles.

Sharipov maintained his innocence, even after his closed-door trial started in late July. Several weeks into the trial, he suddenly admitted his guilt in all the charges leveled against him, dismissed his lawyers, and asked that his mother -- the only outside observer to the proceedings -- be kept out of the courtroom.

Sharipov also said he was prepared to publicly beg for the forgiveness of President Islam Karimov, the interior minister, and local police, and he retracted all the Internet articles that were critical of the government. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail.

Elizabeth Andersen, the executive director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, said in a statement those sudden developments "suggest the authorities' manipulation and coercion of a vulnerable detainee."

Sharipov's lawyer, Surat Ikramov, took the same view, speaking shortly after Sharipov's sentence was announced. "This matter [of Sharipov's trial] is dead," Ikramov said. "We came to the conclusion that there was severe pressure put on [Sharipov]. We are surprised, since most things are unclear and confused here, so how could the court make its decision?"

Bogner said, as in the case of Khudoiberganov, there seemed little evidence for even bringing charges against Sharipov. "There was no evidence presented in the case on which one could decide that he was guilty," Bogner said. "There was no medical evidence to show that there had been any sexual relations between these people, even though Ruslan was arrested hours after these sexual acts were supposed to have occurred. The verbal evidence that was given in court was contradictory, and certainly the lawyers said that it seemed very clear that some of the witnesses had been pressured or told by police what to say."

Uzbekistan is one of the Central Asian countries that gained new world recognition after September 2001 by playing key supporting roles in the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan. There were hopes that this new attention could force the governments the region to ease their grip on their nations. It has seemingly not made a difference in Uzbekistan.

(Zamira Eshanova and Bioliddin Hasanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)