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Uzbek Activist Arrest 'Politically Motivated'
Human rights groups fear that Russia is helping Tashkent silence its troublesome critics, after the arrest in Moscow of an exiled Uzbek opposition activist.
Bahrom Hamroev, the Moscow-based correspondent and distributor for opposition journal, Harakat, was arrested on July 20 and accused of having 3 grammes of heroin in his possession. But Hamroev has denied the charge from his cell in Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison, and his lawyer told IWPR the drugs were planted on him during the arrest.
A range of Uzbek and Russian human rights groups, as well as the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, IHF, have voiced concern at Hamroev’s detention. They believe the criminal charge has been conjured up to silence a leading spokesman for Uzbek rights, whose recent statements have raised hackles in Tashkent and Moscow alike.
In a letter asking Russian president Vladimir Putin to investigate Hamroev’s arrest, IHF described the charges against him as “politically motivated”. The letter states that Hamroev’s work for the rights of Uzbeks living in Russia had made him a target for Uzbek and Russian security forces.
A statement given to IWPR by Hamroev’s lawyer, Vladimir Chumak, seems to confirm this.
According to Chumak, immediately after his arrest, Hamroev did not face any questions about how he acquired the heroin. Instead, police officers, who videotaped the interrogation, questioned him about his political activities and alleged links to Islamic militants, said the lawyer.
The Russian authorities have insisted that his arrest had nothing to do with politics. “Hamroev’s case is not political. It is a criminal case and I don’t understand why there is such a furore over it,” said an interior ministry official.
The letter also says that Russian special police had earlier placed Hamroev under surveillance and questioned his wife and brother over alleged links to Muslim extremists.
Hamroev helped found Uzbekistan’s secular Birlik opposition group in the late Eighties. Pressure from the Uzbek government forced him to leave the country several years later, and he has since lived in Moscow as a Russian citizen.
Abdurahim Polat, the leader of Birlik, confirmed that Hamroev was the Moscow correspondent of the opposition magazine, Harakat.
Set up in 1995 as an outlet for opposition and human rights groups, Harakat is published outside Uzbekistan. Tashkent initially tried to block its distribution within the country, but were forced to relent after the US emphasised democratic reform as a precondition for accepting Uzbekistan as an ally in its “war against terror”.
As Harakat’s man in Moscow, Hamroev was more than just a reporter – he also arranged for copies of the publication to be delivered in bulk to Uzbekistan.
Harakat’s position was strengthened in 1999 when it began receiving support from the US NGO the National Endowment for Democracy.
According to Polat, Harakat’s coverage of controversial issues shunned by the local press has made it “very popular in Uzbekistan”, where it is regarded as “the only independent printed publication”.
However, recent articles published in Harakat may have tested Tashkent’s patience to breaking point.
In particular, Harakat’s decision to republish a report on the role of clan rivalry in Uzbek politics would have been regarded as sheer defiance – especially after Tashkent blocked access to the website on which the article was initially published.
But Hamroev’s supporters believe Uzbek governmental ire is not the only reason why he was arrested. They say the Russian authorities may have had a personal score to settle with him as well.
The IHF’s letter to President Putin cites Hamroev’s participation in a human rights conference on June 24 as another critical event in the run-up to his arrest. At the gathering, organised by Russian human rights group Memorial, Hamroev criticised Moscow police’s treatment of over 50 Central Asians detained on suspicion of Islamic extremism.
The men rounded-up by police were all employees of a private bakery that supplied Moscow supermarkets with traditional Central Asian bread and pastries.
They were accused of being members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamist party banned in Uzbekistan and branded by Russia a terrorist organisation. According to Memorial, most of the bakery workers were subsequently deported to their native countries.
At the conference, Hamroev criticised the official version of events behind the raid on the bakery. According to Vitaly Ponomaryov, a spokesman for Memorial, his comments at the high-profile event would have angered the Moscow authorities.
Hamroev regularly worked with Memorial in challenging Russian attempts to extradite Uzbek exiles wanted by Tashkent.
The raid on the bakery came on the eve of an official visit by President Putin to Uzbekistan. The trip was cancelled at the last minute, following a suicide bombing at a Moscow rock festival on July 5.
A former employee of the prosecutor’s office in Moscow suggested the Russian premier’s visit to Tashkent might be linked to the round-up and deportation of Uzbek dissidents.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told IWPR, “Clearly there has been a political order to arrest Islamic activists from Uzbekistan.”
The official also said that given the difficulty in rooting out genuine Islamic extremists, the police tended to target visible minorities such those who worked at the Central Asian bakery.
Earlier this week, police shut down a café Hamroev used to run with his wife in a Moscow suburb. According to Chumak, Hamroev could face up to 15 years of imprisonment if found guilty on drug charges.
Sanobar Shermatova is a journalist with Moscow News newspaper.
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