Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karimov Critic Arrested in Prague

Human rights activists fear the arrest of a prominent Uzbek opposition leader will be ignored by the international community.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

The arrest of a key opposition leader from Uzbekistan in Prague this week has removed one of the biggest thorns in the side of the country's authoritarian president, Islam Karimov.


Czech police working with Interpol pounced on Muhammed Solikh on November 28 at the city's airport, where he had arrived to take part in an interview with the Prague-based station Radio Liberty.


According to Navfar Kholmatov, Interpol's representative in Tashkent, the agency forwarded Uzbek demands for his deportation. A number of human rights organisations, meanwhile, have called for Solikh to be freed.


Solikh, exiled leader of the Uzbek Erk (Freedom) People's Democratic party, was sentenced to 15 and a half years' imprisonment in absentia in November 2000 for a range of heinous offences, including subverting Uzbekistan's constitutional order, plotting the death of the president, terrorism and establishing and taking part in a criminal society.


The Uzbek high court said Solikh was behind a series of bomb attacks that rocked Tashkent in February 1999 - in which 16 were killed 120 injured - and had organised an incursion of armed insurgents from Tajikistan from 1999 to 2000 in league with the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.


Erk party supporters and human rights campaigners say Solikh was the victim of a judicial farce aimed at discrediting President Islam Karimov's only serious political rival.


After competing against Karimov in the presidential elections of 1991, Solikh was forced to leave Uzbekistan two years later to escape criminal charges. Before his detention in Prague he had been living in Norway where he had sought political asylum.


Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organisation in Uzbekistan, said the arrest raised suspicions that Interpol in Prague had acted at the behest of the Tashkent authorities.


He said that if the agency had really been interested in arresting Solikh, they could have done so in Norway, where he lived openly.


Human rights organisations say the Uzbek courts never established Solikh's role in the explosions in Tashkent or his participation in any of the other serious crimes he was accused of.


They said Solikh, and the leaders of the IMU tried alongside him, Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, were brought before the courts with one aim in mind - to be found guilty so that Tashkent could demand their extradition from the countries where they had sought asylum.


Ardzinov said the Uzbek high court was the tool of the government, and that its rulings had never before enjoyed independent or international credibility. "It was clear to everybody that this was just a show trial, which is why in the year since it ended no one even tried to detain Muhammed Solikh," he said.


There is no mystery behind Tashkent's determination to see Solikh behind bars. In spite of the fact that he has been out of the country for eight years, he remains a symbol of the secular opposition to Karimov's autocratic style of government and is still a potential rival.


At home, the absence of political freedom, of any real opposition or freedom of speech, have prevented the appearance over the last 10 years of any single politician capable of presenting a political platform to the public.


Opposition supporters in Uzbekistan fear that the government is using its increasingly close ties with the US to crush political dissent under the guise of prosecuting Islamic terrorists.


According to the Moscow-based human rights centre, Memorial, there are more than 7000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan accused of links with illegal religious groups.


This year two prominent Uzbeks - human rights activist Shovruk Ruzimuradov and the writer Emin Usman - died in custody.


As Tashkent assumes a key position in the American-led campaign against the Taleban in neighbouring Afghanistan by providing bases for US ground troops on the Afghan border, opposition activists worry that Solikh's arrest will be virtually ignored by the outside world.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR regional director in Uzbekistan