Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Tashkent Tries Islamists
Uzbekistan's battle against Islamic extremists has once again ended up in the courts, despite President Islam Karimov's recent amnesty for Muslim militants.
Over the past 18 months, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, has launched armed incursions into the country ostensibly in as part of their campaign to overthrow the secular state and create an Islamic republic.
In early 1999, the IMU claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in Tashkent which killed 16 and injured over a 100. Since then, the authorities' crackdown has seen 55 men sentenced to death and hundreds more jailed.
This time, the case is primarily against the IMU's leaders Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, as well as the chairman of the Erk Uzbek opposition party Mukhammad Salikh, a former presidential candidate who fled Uzbekistan in 1993.
In all 12 men have been charged. But the iron cage holding the defendants in court held only three of the accused - the other nine are still at large.
Two of the three brought to court - Alimdjon Abdulvakhidov, 22, and Usman Shukurov, 41 - were arrested in July and August by Tajik forces along the border and handed over to the Uzbeks.
The third, Ulugbek Makhmudov, 24, was arrested by Uzbek forces in August during the armed actions in Surkhandarya, 100 kilometres south of Tashkent.
The main figures in the case - Yuldash Namangani and Salikh - were conspicuously absent.
None are in Uzbekistan. Salikh, accused of involvement in the Tashkent explosions, sought refuge in Norway, and the other two are thought to be Afghanistan.
The charges against the three most notable absentees include murder, terrorism and inciting national, racial and religious hatred.
The inclusion of Salikh in the trial has astonished many. The opposition leader fled the country for fear of political persecution. Until now, he has never been accused of involvement with the IMU, or with any terrorist activities.
According to human rights activist Mikhail Ardzinov, the leader of Erk was accused because the party, although banned in Uzbekistan, forms the main political opposition to the current leadership.
" Salikh was targeted because in the minds of many people his party is a political alternative to the those who are now in power," he said. "Although their activities are limited they belong to the few voices who are able to tell the international community the truth about situation in Uzbekistan."
Chief secretary of the Erk party, Atanazar Arifov, thinks the accusations against Salikh are groundless. In all previous cases, he points out, he was only ever identified as leader of Erk. He has never been a leader of the IMU.
But since the United States Congress's recent recognition of the IMU as a terrorist organisation, Arifov says, branding Salikh an IMU leader will make it easier for the Uzbek authorities to demand that Norway hands him over.
Most analysts expect the court verdict to be severe. Since the Tashkent explosions, in one trial alone, 19 men were given the death penalty, amidst widespread doubts about the arbitrary nature of their arrests. The men have since been shot.
But Uzbekistan is deaf to criticisms about its human rights record, believing the international community is indifferent to its problems with armed extremists. It fails to understand why countries like Norway give refuge to Salikh - a man Uzbekistan now officially labels a "terrorist".
"If a Norwegian citizen committed a terrorist act in Norway, then fled to Uzbekistan, how would Norway behave?" asked government press spokesman Rustam Jumaev.
Though it may seem farcical to be trying people in their absence, a guilty verdict - which is almost a foregone conclusion - will allow Uzbekistan to step up its demands for the return of the absentees. Some analysts even believe that, under international agreements, Interpol would be obliged to arrest the guilty parties.
But Arifov believes the international community is skeptical about Salikh's involvement in terrorist activities. A guilty verdict, he says, would only convince people that Salikh is a victim of political persecution even though he left Uzbekistan seven years ago.
As for the leaders of the IMU, it's unlikely that even the severest of penalties will alarm them. They have no intention of returning under the present government. Waging a jihad - holy war - against the secular state has become their way of life. The will only return to Uzbekistan once they've secured their victory.
Galima Bukkharbaeva is IWPR's Tashkent Project Editor.
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