Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Afghan War Survivor Convicted on Terror Charges

Former Soviet soldier, presumed to have died in Afghanistan and later discovered in Pakistani jail, found guilty of terrorism by Uzbek court.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Kasymjon Ermatov during his trial
Photograph of Ermatov in the army in 1985
A memorial bearing Ermatov's name in Namangan region

Standing in the cramped courtroom cage, Kasymjon Ermatov stared fixedly into space. His pale face showed neither fear nor anger and, having only recently arrived back in Uzbekistan after an almost 20 year absence, he seemed not to believe the reality of what was happening to him.

After a four-day trial the plump judge on September 27, wiping sweat from his brow, announced that 38-year-old Ermatov had been found guilty on seven charges – including mercenary activity, terrorism and sabotage – and sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

Ermatov, who had disappeared in 1986 whilst fighting for the Soviet army in Afghanistan, was flown back to face trial in Uzbekistan in April this year after being arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of being a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.

The judge – who appeared to be in a hurry to conclude the case, shouting at journalists and relatives of the accused who were blocking the court aisle on the day of sentencing – was not swayed by protests that Ermatov had become an Afghan citizen during his time abroad and could not, under the circumstances, be tried in an Uzbek court.

And Ermatov’s complaints that he had been tortured during the period of investigation and had been denied the opportunity to speak with his lawyer in private also failed to affect the court’s decision.

For his elderly mother, who hadn’t seen her son since his disappearance, it was all too much.

“I found him again and lost him again,” 74-year-old Kumrikhon Temirova said. “What sort of a fate is this?”

In 1985, the young Ermatov left his home in the Namangan region of eastern Uzbekistan, having volunteered to take part in the Soviet army campaign in Afghanistan.

He began working as a driver, taking building materials from Khairaton, a town on the Afghan side of the border with Uzbekistan, to the capital Kabul.

The following year, after his truck came under fire killing everyone else on board, Ermatov was captured by mujahedin under the command of Burhonuddin Rabbani, a key figure in the Afghan resistance movement.

With a fighter’s weapon trained on him, Ermatov read a sura from the Koran and the man, recognising him as a Muslim, took him alive. Ermatov then spent a total of six years in Afghan and Pakistani jails.

In 1986, the Soviet military, presuming Ermatov had been killed, sent his family notice of his death and what possessions he had left behind. A small memorial bearing the inscription “Kosimjon Movjitovich Ermatov, 1966-1986, died heroically” was erected in his local cemetery and a secondary school in the Namangan region was named after him.

But in 1992 an International Red Cross mission inspecting jails in Pakistan came across a Soviet soldier from Uzbekistan. A Czech journalist wrote an article about the man and got in touch with his family.

In the same year, with the assistance of Rabbani and the Russian embassy in Pakistan, Ermatov’s father visited his son. But Ermatov refused to return to Uzbekistan, saying he had grown accustomed to life abroad and liked living in a Muslim society.

Ermatov said in court that, having been released from prison, he then moved to Kabul where he studied at an Islamic college and served as a driver under Rabbani, who had by then become president of Afghanistan. He received an Afghan passport and in 1995 married an Afghan woman with whom he later had five children.

But the following year, after the fall of Kabul to the Taleban, Rabbani was forced to flee to the northern city of Kunduz with his followers. It was there that Ermatov first met Takhir Yuldash, who would later become leader of the IMU.

At the time, Yuldash was associated with the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, which was involved in fighting the government of Tajikistan. Following the 1997 Tajik peace accords, the UTO disbanded and some former Uzbek members set up their own organisation, the IMU.

Ermatov said he began to work for the latter as a driver and supplier of goods and equipment.

When the Taleban captured northern Afghanistan in 1998, they reached an agreement with the IMU, giving them control of an entire district in Mazar-i-Sharif. According to Ermatov, in the same year around 200 Uzbek families and some 500 fighters travelled to the city from Pakistan, and Ermatov was tasked with settling the new arrivals and providing them with supplies.

The Uzbeks remained in their Mazar-i-Sharif district until autumn 2001, when the US and its allies began attacking the Taleban government in the wake of the attacks against the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Ermatov says that in the subsequent fighting, a third of the IMU was killed in bombing, another third took refuge elsewhere in Afghanistan and the remainder moved with Yuldash to the Vaziristan region on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border.

Ermatov left the IMU in December 2001 and didn’t see Yuldash again until the end of 2003, when he had to take his wife to Pakistan for an operation. On the way to Karachi, he passed through Vaziristan and picked up letters from Yuldash to help him find places to stay in Pakistan.

His wife’s operation was successful. But in January their Karachi apartment was raided by Pakistan special forces and Ermatov was arrested. He then spent three months in a Pakistani jail before being transferred to the US military’s Bagram airbase near Kabul, and then shipped back to Uzbekistan.

Ermatov said that when he arrived in Tashkent he was told, “This is your final stop.”

Ertamov’s defence lawyer Akbarjon Umarov failed to convince the Uzbek court that it had no right to try him, saying he is no longer an Uzbek citizen and has committed no crimes on Uzbek soil.

The Afghan embassy in Tashkent said that since his passport had been lost during his arrest, Ertamov had no proof of Afghan citizenship. And Ermatov’s request that inquiries be made in Pakistan regarding his identity papers or that the court speak to Rabbani, now the Afghan minister for refugees, were denied.

Umarov also argued against the individual charges faced by his client, saying none had been proved.

Ertamov could not be guilty of mercenary activities, he said, since he had never joined an army besides the Soviet military, and former IMU members had testified that although they had seen Ertamov in Afghanistan, he had only ever been involved in providing supplies and had never taken part in any military operations.

Umarov said there was also no proof that his client had committed any acts of terrorism or sabotage.

Classified as an especially dangerous criminal, Ermatov will now spend three years in a closed jail before being transferred to a low-security penal colony to sit out the rest of his sentence.

In Afghanistan, his wife and five small children will be waiting.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR’s country director in Uzbekistan.