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Tashkent 'Wahhabis' on Trial

Uzbek security forces have charged religious leaders at a Tashkent mosque with hatching a plot to overthrow the government
By IWPR Central Asia

Thirteen men accused of plotting a political coup in Uzbekistan claim they were forced to sign confessions after being brutally tortured by police interrogators.


All the defendants standing trial at the Akmal-Ikramovsky court in Tashkent have since retracted the statements in which they admitted to being members of the Wahhabi movement - a purist branch of Islam.


They also stand accused of supplying weapons to their followers and listening to "subversive" broadcasts by the BBC, Radio Liberty and Voice of America.


State prosecutors say the defendants used to gather at Tashkent's Tuhtaboivocha mosque under the leadership of the imam, Abid-kori Nazarov.


Nazarov, whose current whereabouts are unknown, has since been named as a spiritual leader of the Wahhabi faith and a driving force behind the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.


According to the prosecution, the Wahhabi cell at the Tuhtaboivocha mosque plotted to overthrow the Uzbek government in a political coup and to establish an Islamic state in the former Soviet republic.


Members stockpiled weapons in preparation for the uprising and distributed them amongst their supporters. They also encouraged young people to visit the mosque where they were indoctrinated with extremist ideas.


However Hamid Zainutdinov, who is defending three of the suspects, Abdulvahid Yuldashev, Shukhrat Tadjibaev and Dilmurat Sagullaev, said the defendants' only "crime" was that they had visited or worked at a mosque which the authorities believed to be a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.


The mosque, added Zainutdinov, "operated legally in Uzbekistan until 1996 and was opened with the full permission of the authorities".


The trial has been dominated by allegations of police brutality. Abdulvahid Yuldashev told the court he had broken under torture and had signed confessions implicating both himself and several others in terrorist activities.


A graduate of an Islamic seminary, Yuldashev was on a two-year course of study at the Tuhtaboivocha mosque when he was arrested in July 2000.


He told the court that, on July 24, he was taken to a basement in the interior ministry where he was told to reveal the whereabouts of 200 machine-guns allegedly stockpiled by members of the group.


When Yuldashev said that he knew nothing about the weapons, "[the interrogators] put handcuffs on me and began to beat me. I still have a five-centimetre scar on my head where they hit me but I never confessed to a crime I didn't commit."


Later, Yuldashev was taken to a different room where "an attendant called Botir Radiapov wiped the blood from my head. There I found Zakir Almatov, the interior minister of Uzbekistan. He asked me why I refused to tell the truth about the weapons but I said I had never seen them."


After this, Yuldashev told the court, the beatings became more brutal. "They set fire to my genitals and twice put me in solitary confinement," he said. "Finally, to put an end to the torture, I told them we had kept weapons and named various locations where I claimed to have hidden them."


Each time the investigators visited these locations and returned empty handed, Yuldashev changed his story. They only seemed satisfied when he told them the weapons were hidden in Kazakstan. Yuldashev said the officers themselves had advised him to make this statement.


Then an official from the Kazak interior ministry arrived in Tashkent to report that no arms had been found in the alleged hiding-places. "It is likely he wanted to interview me," said Yuldashev, "but I looked terrible - half of my face was swollen from the beatings and they didn't let him see me."


Co-defendant Husan Maksudov had a similar tale to tell. Maksudov worked as a night-watchman at the mosque until its closure in 1996 when he was entrusted with a number of books and audio-cassettes with recordings of religious sermons. He later destroyed the library for fear of being arrested.


Maksudov told the court that he was subjected to physical and mental torture throughout the investigation. "They threatened to round up my wife, daughter and daughter-in-law and rape them in front of me," he said.


"It was then that I incriminated myself and Yuldashev. I told them we'd both distributed weapons amongst our followers." Maksudov said he still suffered severe pain in his leg from the beatings and was unable to sleep on his left side.


He claimed he had never had any links with Wahhabi groups - a term he had heard for the first time during the investigation. The defendants have also complained that they were denied legal counsel.


Hamid Zainutdinov told IWPR, "They forced Shukhrat Tadjibaev and Abdulvahid Yuldashev to refuse my services. I went to visit them at the time and they had been badly beaten. An interrogator was present throughout the interview and we were given no privacy."


A charge of listening to "separatist, extremist radio broadcasts" has also aroused widespread outrage. Zainutdinov commented, "No one in Uzbekistan ever said that it was forbidden to listen to the BBC, Radio Liberty or the Voice of America. The state even gave accreditation to correspondents from these radio stations."


International human rights groups have reacted swiftly to the allegations of pre-trial torture. New York-based Human Rights Watch says police brutality and trumped-up charges have already become regular features of any trial in Uzbekistan focusing on religious extremism.


The organisation's executive director, Kenneth Roth, visited Tashkent in January last year to appeal for an end to pre-trial torture in the former Soviet republic. He later said that, at meetings with the interior ministry, the National Security Service and the foreign ministry, officials argued that the threat posed by extremist organisations justified the use of torture during police interrogations.


The official attitude gives little hope that the Tashkent court will be swayed by the torture allegations or that the interrogators themselves will ever be brought to account for their actions.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's project editor in Tashkent


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