Caged in the back of a courtroom, they were attacked by police during a court recess. When their lawyer complained, he was beaten by civilians attending the trial, then followed outside the courthouse, where he was set upon in full view of police, who were slow to intervene.
That is the scene that unfolded during a recent trial in the Kara-Suu district of Kyrgyzstan's southern city of Osh, as described by Amnesty International on October 1.
Up to 10 trials are being held in Kyrgyzstan with the aim of seeing justice done following the interethnic clashes that left nearly 450 people dead in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad in mid-June.
Adding to concerns that the country could once again fall back into the chaos seen this summer is that the ugly incident in the Kara-Suu courtroom is not an isolated case.
"The trials are in no way fair and independent," says Andrea Berg, the Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), who has been monitoring trials taking place in southern Kyrgyzstan in which nearly all the defendants are ethnic Uzbeks.
"At all the trials the audience is only Kyrgyz because the relatives of the Uzbek defendants are by now so scared to even come close to the courtroom, and if they actually try to make it to the court building they are beaten up or attacked outside."
Berg saw an example of this about two weeks after the incident Amnesty International reported, in which a defendant out on bail, who had a court hearing at 2 p.m., "was beaten up 10 minutes earlier by a crowd of angry Kyrgyz men and women outside of the courtroom, outside of the court building," and put in the hospital.
A number of Kyrgyz and international rights organizations have criticized the life sentence given to activist Azimjan Askarov.
She adds that she saw "another three Uzbek people [show up] in the hospital with very bad head concussions and covered in blood. These were relatives of one of the defendants -- one woman and two men -- and they were attacked by the same group. Again, outside of the same court, a foreign journalist was punched in the face." Public Self-Defenders
Aziza Abdurasulova is the chairwoman of the Bishkek-based human rights organization Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century). She wanted to testify at the trial of rights activist Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek accused of killing a police official in Bazar-Korgon, just outside Jalal-Abad, during the June violence.
"No one in the world could say the sentence for the brutal murder of the policeman was a fair process, a fair sentence," Abdurasulova says. "I wanted to appear as a witness but I was threatened that if I did I wouldn't get out alive. I didn't go because I didn't want aggravate the situation. But my testimony and that of Ismail Isakov would have helped to reach a just verdict in the case of Azimjon Askarov."
Abdurasulova, Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, and several international rights organizations complained about the life sentence Askarov received in mid-September.
The Dublin-based rights group Front Line had a representative at Askarov's trial and reported that, during the hearing: "Askarov's lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, was heckled by supporters of the prosecution, who shouted: 'You are working for Western money, we will kill you. We will kill your family and will eat your children.'"
Toktakunov has not been scared off, though he indicated to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service he did not expect justice to prevail. "We appealed to the Supreme Court, the prosecutor-general, and they sent it [the appeal] on to Tash-Kumyr," he said. "We'll see what happens. We have no other way. We will work to fulfill our obligations."
Toktakunov and other lawyers in southern Kyrgyzstan, most of them ethnic Kyrgyz, have appealed to the government in Bishkek for help.
"They basically went on strike" on October 15, HRW's Berg says. "They gave a press conference in Osh and 160 lawyers from the south signed a petition to President Roza Otunbaeva that they would not return or that they would not defend clients in cases related to the June violence until they and the defendants are protected."Will More Police Bring Justice?
In the last few days, Berg says that "there seems to be more police and security forces now inside the courtroom" and "escorts for the lawyers, so that they are at least able to question witnesses, to question defendants, and to do their normal work."
Azimbek Beknazarov (file photo)
The Kyrgyz authorities are looking into these claims. "We met with all the participants in these court processes. All the problems are essentially resolved," Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov said in Bishkek after visiting the south on October 20.
"For example, if lawyers know in advance there is some kind of threat, they should somehow report this in advance to the chairman of the court or the police," Beknazarov said. "There is an impression that some forces are interested in disrupting these court proceedings, some sort of sabotage or provocation against them. I have called on all law enforcement agencies to look into this matter."
Beknazarov may be sincere, but his words will probably do little to calm the concerns of ethnic Uzbeks who to this point have made up the majority of those tried in court. Uzbeks, to this point, have been the only ones to face serious charges, such as murder or inciting violence.
Talant Akkuzoev, the deputy prosecutor of Jalal-Abad's Suzak district, has said that "six ethnic Kyrgyz" have been tried and convicted for theft and looting. The Jalal-Abad prosecutor's office told RFE/RL there were 88 people facing charges connected to the June violence, 26 of them ethnic Kyrgyz.
Berg says HRW has heard that two Kyrgyz are currently on trial, but could not confirm this or provide additional information. The Osh authorities have declined to give any concrete figures.