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Uzbek President Frees Jailed Activist

Whilst welcoming the release of Makhbuba Kasymova, human rights campaigners believe up to 6,000 political prisoners are still languishing in Uzbek jails.
By IWPR Central Asia

An Uzbek human rights activist, whose trial and imprisonment in July 1999 sparked an international outcry, has been granted a presidential pardon.


Makhbuba Kasymova, 51, a member of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, IOHRU, was released from prison on the eve of the 2001 New Year celebrations. She had served 18 months of a five-year sentence.


Kasymova says that President Islam Karimov's special decree came as a complete surprise. "They didn't even let me wait for my relatives to bring me clothes and I went home in my prison uniform," she said.


Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the IOHRU, believes the government was pressured into releasing Kasymova by a barrage of appeals from international human rights organisations and the US State Department.


In July 1999, Kasymova, a mother of six, received a summons to attend a Tashkent court hearing only to discover that she was the defendant. "I arrived at the court house and they told me that I was to stand trial. A woman I'd never met before informed me that she was my [defence] lawyer," she said.


Kasymova was charged with fraud and harbouring a member of a banned religious organisation in her Tashkent home. She argued that the 'dangerous criminal' was in fact a relative from Kokand who had come to the capital to find a job.


The trial lasted for just three hours and Kasymova was jailed for five years. "The guards handcuffed me and took me away to Tashkent Prison while my daughter looked on in complete bewilderment," she recalled.


Kasymova was expected to be released from prison in September last year under the terms of an amnesty to mark Uzbek Independence Day. However, she claims the prison authorities promptly charged her with two counts of breaking prison regulations and refused to grant parole.


"The prison warders know in advance when an amnesty is in the offing and ensure that any person out of favour with the authorities is not released," said Kasymova.


Mikhail Ardzinov says Kasymova's arrest was part of the massive police crackdown which followed the Tashkent bomb attacks of February 1999. He believes the Uzbek security forces targeted the IOHRU because it had worked actively on behalf of minority religious organisations outlawed by the state.


Ardzinov told IWPR that he himself was beaten up by police officers who burst into his Tashkent flat in June 1999, then took him into custody. The security services also confiscated documents and computer equipment belonging to the IOHRU, none of which have yet been returned.


In August, Ismail Adylov, the organisation's third active member, was jailed for six years on charges of sabotage and possessing leaflets belonging to the banned Khizb-ut-Takhrir militant group. Adylov's son later claimed the leaflets were planted in the apartment by the arresting officers.


Ardzinov said that Adylov was suffering from a kidney complaint and the IOHRU would continue to campaign for his release and that of other political prisoners.


Ardzinov believes there are around 6,000 prisoners in Uzbek jails who have been found guilty of crimes against the state. Of these, at least 4,000 are members of Khizb-ut-Takhrir while others include prominent opponents of the Karimov regime such as the two brothers of Mohammed Salikh (the Erk opposition party leader who has been in exile since 1993) and the writer Mamadali Makhmudov.


Ardzinov doubts that Kasymova's release heralds a change in the government's attitude to political prisoners but he added, "We welcome this step and hope that other political prisoners will soon be freed."


However, the IOHRU leader acknowledged that the worsening economic situation in the country combined with poor harvests and minimal investment did not bode well for democratic values.


"In these conditions, the Uzbek government cannot afford to give free rein to democracy," he explained. "It is concerned the people will discover the true level of corruption in Uzbekistan and the true nature of their own predicament. The resulting unrest could bring down the regime."


But he went on to say the authorities had realised that further accusations of human rights abuse could effectively isolate Uzbekistan from the international community. On December 30, Ubaidulla Minbaev, chairman of the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan, admitted that the sentences imposed by Uzbek courts were unnecessarily harsh and advocated greater leniency.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR Project Editor in Tashkent


Kyrgyz Disappointed Over Government Changes


Few believe the new Kyrgyz government will reverse the country's economic decline


By Igor Grebenschikov and Meder Imakeev in Bishkek


Government changes at the end of last month will do little to pull Kyrgyzstan out of social and economic crisis, critics of the authorities say.


They insist that the newly constituted cabinet has merely strengthened the influence of President Akaev over the authorities. The head of state, they say, has appointed ministers noted more for their loyalty than their professional qualities.


"The political social and economic situiation in Kyrgystan is critical, " said Melis Eshimkanov, the editor of the opposition newspaper, Asaba. "Therefore I expected Akaev to make radical government appointments. What he did in the end was just shuffle the deck."


Akaev's critics are just as dismissive of the President's decision to drastically reduce the number of government ministries from 42 to 27. They say the reforms, ostensibly designed to make the administration run more efficiently, are cosmetic and will have little impact.


They point out, for instance, that the The National Security Ministry was merely re-named the National Security Service and brought under Akaev's direct control.


This followed the ministry's over-zealous hounding of the current leadership's political opponents during parliamentary and presidential elections last year.


Its arrest of the opposition leader Felix Kulov and prosecution of the independent newspaper Delo N... drew international criticism and is thought to have further tarnished Kyrgyzstan's image as an island of democracy in Central Asia.


"The ministry's change of name is meaningless, " said Kulov. " Unless it changes its policies, it will turn into an instrument for persecuting political opponents of the authorities."


The opposition says while Akaev has appointed a good administrator to the post of prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiev, the ex-governor of Chuy Oblast, will not be able to implement the radical changes needed to pull the economy out of the economic doldrums.


Unlike his predecessor Bakiev has been put in charge of the whole economy, but he will not have the authority to ensure that ministries push through economic reforms, Kyrgyz journalists say.


Since the Akaev's hand-picked ministers will probably feel that they only have to answer to him, they may well be resistant to Bakiev policies they don't like.


It seems that the appointment of Bakiev had more to do with an attempt to improve relations with the south of the country and maintain good ties with Moscow.


A mountain range separates Kyrgystan into two distinct regions with different customs and mentalities, but during Soviet times a political dimension was added. Party elite were drawn from the ranks of northern politicians; and as a result their region became the industrial centre of the country, while the south remained agricultural.


President Akaev, who is a northerner, needed to give the highest government post to someone from the south. The authorities can no longer afford to ignore the region - remote parts of which are increasingly being targeted by Islamic fighters.


High levels of unemployment in this densely populated area makes it a potential breeding ground for Islamic groups opposed to the current leadership.


More generally, the region's worsening economic plight could turn the region against the Bishkek authorities.


Whether Akaev's prime ministerial appointment will pacify the south is questionable. The President has in the past declared his intention to better conditions in the south, but his pledges have largely come to naught.


Bakiev is more likely to play a useful role in relations with Moscow - Kyrgyzstan's main economic and political partner.


In the government reshuffle, the post of deputy-prime minister, a position normally held by a Russian, was handed to Nikolai Tanaev, the head of the state construction company.


This came as something of a surprise, as the post-holder normally plays an important role in relations with Moscow. Tanaev's appointment suggested there's a shortage of Russians in the upper ranks of the political leadership.


But since Bakiev was educated in Moscow, spent several years working there and has a Russian wife, diplomatic relations between the countries should remain on an even keel.


Overall, critics of the authorities argue that the government personnel changes and reforms are merely intended to enable Akaev to exercise greater control over Kyrgyzstan - and will have little if any effect in turning the country around.


"The economic situation is worsening - and I doubt whether the changes will arrest the decline, " said Kulov." Therefore I don't think the new government will last long - I give it six months maximum. "


Igor Grebenschikov and Meder Imakeev are regular IWPR contributors


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