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Tashkent Show Trials

Human rights groups say a series of Tashkent show trials are a stunt aimed at exaggerating the threat posed by Muslim extremists
By Said Khojaev

Massive show trials of mountain villagers accused of conspiring with Muslim guerrillas began in Tashkent last month.


Human rights activists say many of the 70 or so defendants are simple folk who did no more than hand out loaves of bread to people they thought were ordinary travellers.


The court proceedings are showpiece events in the sense of being surrounded by colossal panoply of security which, human rights activists say, is designed to convince the outside world that dangerous criminals are being brought to justice.


They are not, however, like the classic Soviet show trials where the prosecution was thrown open to world scrutiny. None of the four trials in Tashkent permit journalists, human rights representatives or international observers.


The villagers were arrested last December at the end of a military operation to stamp out bands of fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which had launched raids into southern Uzbekistan from neighbouring Tajikistan. The fighting went on throughout the summer and autumn in the Sariasiisk and Uzun districts of the Surkhandaria region.


After the fighting, Uzbek troops burned down three remote mountain kishlaks, as villages are known there, and resettled the occupants in makeshift dwellings down on the plains of the Sherbad district in Surkhandaria.


Soon police started calling in the night to arrest displaced villagers suspected of having shown sympathy to Islamic guerrillas, according to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU. After some six months of intense interrogation, suspects were accused of cooperating with guerrillas and failing to report their activities, the HRSU said.


Initially, the prosecutor's office denied the villagers would be put on trial, insisting that they would only be called as witnesses. So, it came as a shock when they suddenly appeared in the dock in May.


Relatives of the accused said they had been kept in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones. The authorities refused to give them any information. It was only when some called at the solitary confinement wing of Tashkent prison that they learned the trials were about to start.


The courts are surrounded by cordons of militia. Units of OMON special forces are at the scene as well as agents from the National Security Service, formerly known as the KGB.


Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, IHROU, says such ostentatious security is to convey the impression that highly dangerous criminals are on trial.


Relatives who managed to get into the courtroom said the health of defendants had deteriorated sharply during their six months of detention. Parents of Khudainazar Alimakhmadov were unable to spot him in the courtroom. Only when he started waving at them did they recognise their son. The parents said he looked beaten and exhausted.


Khalima Shoimova, a human rights activist from the Surkhandaria region, believes the charges are ill-founded since even if mountain villagers had contact with gunmen infiltrating from Tajikistan there was no sinister intent.


She pointed out that the villagers lived without electricity, gas and or schools. Such poorly educated, uninformed people knew nothing about the gunmen or their activities, Shoimova said.


"These are simple people who live in the mountains and are governed by the laws of Nature, " she said. "If strangers arrived buying food and paying good money why should they not trade with them? When they gave them bread, they did not think that they were helping gunmen or working against state authority."


Such arguments, however, are unlikely to sway prosecutors. Uzbekistan's past experience shows that the testimony of defendants and witnesses supporting them is rarely heeded, while complaints about torture during interrogation are ignored.


"Uzbekistan's criminal judicial system offers no protection against arbitrary police procedures and provides little in the way of guarantees for a defendant's right of access to a lawyer," said a recent report by the Human Rights Watch.


Talib Lakulov of HRSU wrote last January that kishlak people are being placed on trial to convince the international community that Muslim extremism and international terrorism are threatening Central Asia and Uzbekistan in particular.


"But it is obvious that the terror unleashed by the authorities against the peaceful population of kishlaks in Surkhandaria is much greater than the alleged terror inflicted by guerrillas from abroad," Lakulov said.


Said Khojaev is the pseudonym of a journalist in Uzbekistan


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