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Family Says Jailed Uzbek Opposition Leader's Life At Risk

Sanjar Umarov in May 2005
Sanjar Umarov in May 2005
Sanjar Umarov's family says the jailed leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan opposition group is in poor health and his life is in danger, with family members saying they saw signs of torture while visiting him last week.

Gulambek Umarov is to speak on July 24 at the United Nations in New York about political prisoners in Uzbekistan, which include his father, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term after criticizing the Uzbek authorities' handling of the bloody events at Andijon in 2005.

Gulambek will be part of the panel "Courageous Voices: Speaking Out For Prisoners of Conscience," which is devoted to the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and features the relatives of political prisoners from six countries, including Uzbekistan.

Gulambek says his father had numerous bruises and seemed to be drugged when his brother and his aunt visited him at the Qiziltepa prison near the city of Bukhara last week.

He says that his relatives said his father "was a completely different person. He had lost half of his body weight. He did not respond adequately [to questions]. He was walking and murmuring: 'It's awful, awful. Why did I come here?' He had fresh bruises on the back of his knees. Bruises on his chest were [probably older], they looked yellowish. He also had old bruises on his back.

"My brother asked him, 'Papa, show me your heels.' He didn't. But his nails were of some weird color and appeared to have been screwed. They were either beaten or burnt, we couldn't figure out what happened to them. He didn't answer any questions. He was afraid to speak."

Speaking to RFE/RL from Memphis, Tennessee, where Sanjar Umarov's wife and five children now live, Gulambek says his father disappeared from the prison during the whole month of June. The family was unable to contact the prison administration or the Interior Ministry department in charge of prisons to find out where he was.

Umarov believes prison authorities hid his father after they had severely beaten him.

Following the visit in prison, Umarov's wife and children wrote a letter to Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, security service, Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and the embassy in the United States. They expressed concern over Umarov's physical and mental health and asked Uzbek authorities to release him.

"We asked them to save my father's life, to stop the use of torture immediately," Gulambek Umarov says. "He must be released from there. If he continues to be there and kept in that condition, we will lose him."

Jailing The Opposition

Umarov, 52, was a successful businessman who set up the first mobile-communications company in Uzbekistan and worked with Western companies in the oil, gas, and cotton industries. He was involved in supplying oil to U.S. troops at the base in Karshi, before they were ordered to leave the country in 2005.

Umarov founded the Sunshine Uzbekistan coalition in early 2005 to demand economic reforms in the country. He criticized the authorities' handling of the May 2005 protest in Andijon and urged the government to resign over the killings of hundreds of civilians.

He was arrested in October 2005 on charges of embezzlement, money laundering, and tax evasion, and sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison. His term was later reduced to seven years and eight months.

Umarov also appeared to have been drugged during his trial in March 2006.

Umarov's family and colleagues have said the case was politically motivated and the charges fabricated.

Gulambek says the main witness in the case against his father was threatened with the rape of his young daughters if he refused to collaborate with police. Umarov also claims that the witness has been unable to travel abroad because the Uzbek authorities took his passport.

Umarov's lawyer and his family had to flee Uzbekistan following the trial after increasing pressure from the authorities.

Nodira Hidoyatova, a fellow member of Umarov's Sunshine coalition, was also imprisoned in March 2006 to a lengthy term on economic charges. The sentence was later suspended and Hidoyatova, a single mother of two young children, was released in May 2006.

No Official Response

The family has previously claimed that Umarov was subject to torture and maltreatment in jail.

The family was denied prison visits for 13 months after Umarov was transferred to the Qiziltepa prison colony.

Gulambek Umarov says the prison administration told the family many times that "everything will be normal" for Sanjar. "They said, 'Just don't make any noise about the case,'" he says.

He also says the family has sent several letters to Uzbek authorities about his father's worsening condition. But the answer is always the same.

"When we sent a letter to President [Karimov's] administration, a month later the answer came that said that the letter had been resent to the MVD [Interior Ministry] or GUIN [the department in charge of the prison system] or somewhere else," he says. "Then, two months later, a reply came from MVD or GUIN that read: 'We considered your letter. Umarov's condition is satisfactory. His pulse is 70 beats [per minute], his blood pressure is such and such. He does not complain about his health.' That is all."

Gulambek Umarov says he does not have much hope that the Umarovs' most recent letter to the Uzbek authorities will bring any positive result.

He says that at the July 24 UN panel on political prisoners he will urge the international community to put pressure on "hypocritical" Uzbek officials "whose rhetoric on human rights doesn't correspond to their deeds."

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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