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Controversial Trial Triggered Uzbek Violence

Local businessmen accused of being Islamic subversives say they were framed – and so do many of their townsmen.
By Matluba Azamatova

The violent protests seen on May 13 as thousands of people rallied in the eastern Uzbekistan city of Andijan were sparked by a trial in which 23 men accused of Islamic radicalism protested their innocence.


The day before, supporters freed the accused men and hundreds of other detainees from Andijan’s prison and proceeded to take over much of the city.


Uzbekistan has seen many trials of alleged Islamic subversives in the last decade, and especially in recent years. Thousands of people have been arrested and jailed, often on charges that look flimsy.


There have been real underground movements, most famously the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb-ut-Tahrir.


But the Andijan trial is different.


Formally, all 23 defendants are charged with offences relating to setting up, participating in and leading “religious extremist or prohibited organisations”, subversion and abuse of position.


The basis for the case is that the accused, who were arrested in June-August 2004, were members of a covert group called the “Akramia”, named after Andijan native Akram Yuldashev who once wrote an Islamic treatise and who has spent years in Uzbek jails.


Most of the defendants were successful businessmen, and 15 ran their own private firms, employing some 2,000 people in all – a workforce which now faces unemployment. They were also involved in charitable work, and sympathisers say their devout Muslim beliefs made them try to conduct business in an ethical way, in a country where corruption is rife.


The fact that the men occupied respected positions rather than being radicals living on the margins of society meant they had substantial public sympathy in the city when their trial opened in February.


As the trial reached its peak this week with hearings on May 10-11, thousands of people gathered outside the city court.


Demonstrators said there was no such organisation as the Akramia, and instead they accused the Uzbek authorities of pursuing a concerted policy of crushing anyone who might have the potential to become public leaders.


The evidence presented at the trial was thin. Prosecuturs say the accused had jointed the Akramia group in 1994 and were all acquainted with Yuldashev, the alleged founder.


Yuldashev has been in prison almost continuously since 1998, when he was jailed for possessing drugs, released, and then imprisoned following a series of bomb blasts which rocked the capital Tashkent in February 1999.


His real crime, many say, was to pen the “The Path to Faith” in 1992. While the authorities have portrayed the work as a handbook for Islamic subversives, the book focuses on the individual rather than social ills, suggesting that people should take responsibility for their actions.


Lawyers and others familiar with the work have told IWPR that Yuldashev’s aim in writing it was explicitly to stop young people being drawn into aggressive militant groups.


At the trial, all 23 defendants denied any guilt, saying the concept of some organised force called Akramia was pure invention by the authorities.


All said they had been subjected to torture and moral blackmail during the investigation.


In a final statement on May 11 before the court adjourned to consider its verdict, defendant Abdulboiz Ibrahimov said the year he had spent in the National Security Service detention centre had taken 10 years off his life.


“We were tormented morally and physically,” he said, standing in the cage in which defendants are held in the courtroom. “Now we are charged with belonging to Akramia. Surely it’s clear that Akramia is just a myth.”


The prosecutor demanded sentences of three to seven years. But they did not appear to have much to go on as they called for the men to be jailed. Asked what specific criminal acts the defendants had carried out, chief prosecutor Ulughbek Bakirov, told the court, “They have not yet committed any crimes - but they might commit them.”


The accused men were bemused as to why the authorities should want to target them.


One, Tursun Nazarov, said in court, “We were good businessmen, we paid our taxes on time and we gave people jobs. It’s clear that someone was not to pleased about this, so we were put in jail.


“But if we are sentenced, our families will not just sit twiddling their thumbs. The most important thing is that people will finally lose their faith in justice.”


That was a sentiment echoed by many among the 2,000 people sitting quietly in the street outside the court.


One supporter said presciently, “If the sentence is unjust, we will be forced to act. We are now waiting. We are not a mob, we’re intelligent people, so we are awaiting the sentence.”


Matluba Azamatova is an IWPR correspondent in Fergana.


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