19 September 2002, Volume 2, Number 36
UZBEK HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER JAILED. The trial of human rights activist Yoldash Rasulov, which opened on 3 September at Yunusobod District Court in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, ended on 17 September with a judgment of guilty. Rasulov, who is a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (OIHJ), was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for distributing "extremist" literature and attempting to "overthrow the constitutional order," in the language of the Uzbek criminal code. More explicitly, his alleged crimes were disseminating antigovernment propaganda and recruiting members for the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2002).
Rasulov was arrested on 24 May in the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi and transferred to a cell in the Interior Ministry building in Tashkent, where he was held incommunicado for over a month. At the time, law enforcement officials were claiming that Rasulov had recruited young men for "terrorist training camps abroad" and for the Taliban, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) press release noted last week. On 27 May, the deputy chairman of the ministry's Department for Combating Terrorism, Ilya Pegay, said that Rasulov had been fingered by unspecified members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as the leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kashkadaryo Oblast (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 30 May 2002).
Meanwhile, fellow human rights activists denied that Rasulov was connected to any radical religious group. They attributed his arrest to his human rights work, which mostly consisted of documenting the government's persecution of dissidents and Muslims whose religious practices and affiliations fell beyond state controls. Rasulov's colleagues and supporters drew ominous parallels between his case and that of Shovruh Ruzimuradov, an OIHJ member and the opposition Birlik Party's branch head in Qarshi, who was taken into custody on 15 June of last year and tortured to death in prison (see "Activist Buried After Dying in Police Custody," www.rferl.org, 11 July 2001). According to Rasulov's sister, far from recruiting for Hizb ut-Tahrir, her brother had persuaded several of its members to leave the organization, AP reported on 17 September.
Analysts generally regarded the court's ruling against Rasulov as a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, the guilty verdict provoked renewed dismay among watchdog groups -- following, as it did, months of promises by the regime to the international community to improve Uzbekistan's human-rights record, and a trial where the prosecution's case seemed not merely weak but negligible. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the British embassy in Tashkent attended the trial. According to HRW, which on 18 September called the proceedings "clearly political," the prosecution proved little more than that Rasulov prayed five times a day and had listened to cassettes about the moral precepts of Islam that were sold openly in the country during the 1990s. Other evidence was signed statements by two witnesses that Rasulov had instructed them in Islam -- statements they then retracted during the trial -- and various self-incriminating statements signed by the defendant himself, who told HRW he did so under duress, including torture, and because he feared that otherwise he would die in prison like Ruzimuradov. In sum, according to his OIHJ colleague Surat Ikramov, the prosecution produced no evidence during the trial to substantiate the charges against Rasulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September). In fact, one of the original charges -- membership in a criminal organization -- was dropped during the course of the trial for lack of proof. Nevertheless the presiding judge, Tolib Obidov, delivered a guilty verdict on 17 September which mentioned Rasulov's cooperation with alleged Islamist militants in a conspiracy to spread Wahhabism, although the prosecution had presented no evidence of either such cooperation or a conspiracy. HRW commented on the following day that the state's successful prosecution of Rasulov killed several birds with one stone. It stopped him from documenting human rights violations in Uzbekistan; acted as a warning to other activists; and attempted to discredit human-rights work altogether by smearing a high-profile practitioner like Rasulov as an Islamist terrorist.
Meanwhile, three further OIHJ members were sentenced to prison terms of 5-6 years on 16 September by a Qarshi district court, the website of the opposition Erk Party (Uzbekistanerk.org) reported. They were officially charged with "hooliganism," but their true crime was to have shone a light on corruption within the municipal administration, the website said on 17 September.
The trials of OIHJ activists come three weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a document dated 26 August, reported to the U.S. Congress that Uzbekistan was making "substantial and continuing progress" in meeting the human rights and democracy commitments contained in a joint declaration signed with U.S. officials in March 2002. In a 9 September press release, HRW accused the State Department of exaggerating Uzbekistan's human-rights progress in order to mandate further foreign assistance to its Central Asian ally.
KYRGYZ PROTEST MARCH CALLED OFF AS GOVERNMENT PROMISES CONCESSIONS. Over a week after it set off for the capital Bishkek from Kyrgyzstan's southern Djalalabad Oblast, a protest march that had grown to some 800 people ended after government and opposition representatives met late on 12 September in the city of Toktogul and negotiated a resolution to the situation, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The demonstrators, who since 8 September had been halted about 400 kilometers from the capital in the town of Kara-Kul, had been demanding the resignation of President Askar Akaev and punishment of those responsible for the March clashes in southern Aksy Raion that left five dead (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 12 September 2002). Additional demands included revision of the Sino-Kyrgyz border agreement signed in May; the resignation of various top officials for their roles in the March bloodshed, including then-presidential administration head Amanbek Karypkulov, currently Kyrgyz ambassador to Turkey; the release of former Vice President Feliks Kulov, who is serving a 10-year prison term on charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position; and the release of 12 protesters arrested in the town of Tash-Komur in June and in Djalalabad earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 16 September 2002).
As government and opposition delegations convened in Toktogul, the authorities' impatience to disperse the protestors was clear. But the opposition, too, had reasons to find a formula that would allow them to abandon the march without losing face. According to a 12 September report from the Kyrgyz Committee on Human Rights, march participants in Kara-Kul had been forced by police to encamp in a damp and marshy area on the outskirts of the city. They were hungry, since their supplies had been confiscated and shops in town had been shut down, and they had to drink dirty water from the river. Moreover, the authorities blocked their further progress by staging showdowns with progovernment demonstrators who were bussed in to confront them, Reuters said on 13 September. "We were 50 meters from civil war," remarked opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov, as quoted by AP five days later.
Beknazarov led the opposition delegation in Toktogul. Across the table sat Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov, the speaker of the People's Assembly (parliament's upper house) Altai Borubaev, and others, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 12 September. The deal that the two sides struck was framed in a signed memorandum. First, the government pledged that the 12 citizens arrested during protests in Tash-Komur and Djalalabad would be set free and the charges against them dropped. Second, the document named three men to be punished by 15 November for their part in the orchestrating the Aksy clashes -- Karypkulov, former Minister of Internal Affairs Temirbek Akmataliev, and his deputy Kalmurat Sadie. Third, other, unspecified local officials who shared responsibility for the tragedy are to be punished as well. On 13 September Akaev, meeting relatives of those killed, confirmed that he would meet the 15 November deadline to bring those responsible to justice. But as of 14 September the authorities had still not released the 12 protestors as they promised, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.
Also, although it was not a specific component of the bargaining in Toktogul, the draft bill presented earlier this month to parliament that would have imposed a three-month moratorium on public protests, meetings, and demonstrations was withdrawn by Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2002). Osmonov explained that following the decision by protesters to abandon their march, such a law was no longer needed.
In return for the government's accession to their demands, opposition delegates in Toktogul promised that protestors would stop insisting that Akaev step down and the border treaty with China be revised, and would go home. And they did go home, with transport provided by the authorities, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau said on 14 September. On the same day Parliamentary Speaker Borubaev told Kyrgyz Radio that the "so-called 'Great March on Bishkek' failed" because protestors recognized that they were breaking the law and in breach of the constitution, and wisely opted to disband. "I think that participants will not be holding such marches or pickets in the future. Gradually�the tension in the country will go away," Borubaev said.
He may have spoken too soon. To mark the six-month anniversary of the Aksy shootings, a large crowd of protesters gathered on 17 September at the Ata-Beyit memorial, a monument in the suburbs of Bishkek commemorating those killed in a 1937 Stalinist purge. According to AP, 350 people attended the meeting, while RFE/RL's Bishkek correspondent reported about 1,000. The meeting was convened by the opposition People's Congress, which comprises the Ar-Namys, Ata-Meken, People's, and Social-Democratic parties. Participants again demanded the trial of the perpetrators of the March clashes, the release of Kulov, and the end of political repression in Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2002).