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

Uzbekistan's Desolation Row

Sister of jailed "terrorist" says he faces imminent execution on the basis of flawed trial.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Iskander Hudoiberganov who was sentenced to death in November 2002.
Dilobar Khudoiberganova has been lobbying the government to save her brother.

Human rights activists fear that a man sentenced to death on the basis of flimsy evidence last year could be executed by the Uzbek authorities at any moment.

Iskander Khudoiberganov's case highlights not just the grave flaws in Uzbekistan's judicial processes, but also the way innocent relatives are targets for oppression simply through association with a suspect.

Khudoiberganov, 28, was sentenced to death in November 2002 after a court in the capital Tashkent found him guilty on 14 counts including murder, terrorism, and plotting to overthrow the government through membership of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.

His sister Dilobar Khudoiberganova has been doggedly lobbying the court and government for seven months in an attempt to save the life of her brother.

"Don't kill my brother - he hasn't committed any crime," she said. "Six months have passed since the Tashkent city court passed the sentence - that means he could be shot at any time."

Dilobar is the only member of Khudoiberganov's family still trying to save him. His elderly parents and older brother have been so devastated by the persecution they have allegedly faced from the Uzbek authorities that they have given up.

Like Dilobar, Amnesty International believes that Khudoiberganov could be executed at any moment, even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has formally requested a stay of execution until his case has been investigated further.

Amnesty is aware of at least three cases where the authorities have ignored the UN's plea for executions to be suspended. Ilkhom Babajanov, 25, Maksud Ismoilov, 29, and Azamat Uteev, 22 were all put to death in May. Uteev's case was not reviewed under appeal by the presidential commission that acts as last recourse for death row prisoners.

Khudoiberganov was arrested by police in Tajikistan in August 2001 and extradited to Uzbekistan the following year. The Uzbek court ruled that Khudoiberganov was an active IMU member, that he received "terrorist" training in Chechnya, and that he was involved in the February 1999 bomb blasts near government buildings in Tashkent which left 16 dead. It also found him guilty of the August 1999 murder of a jeweller in during a robbery in the capital.

However, Dilobar and the defence lawyers who took part in the trial say that the evidence used to support these charges was anything but sound. Some was circumstantial, and the rest based on confessions extracted from the accused while under torture. In court, Khudoiberganov recanted, and showed scars on his head and body, which he said were the result of abuse. The judges simply disregarded his remarks.

Witness evidence cited in the case shows similar flaws. All but one of the people who initially testified against Khudoiberganov refused to uphold their original statements once they got to court. The only remaining witness - and a crucial one - has been placed in a psychiatric hospital.

The court disregarded a statement from the rector of the Tashkent art institute, who said that Khudoiberganov regularly attended lectures from September 1997 to August 1998 as part of his film course.

"The investigation and the court found that at that very time he was in Chechnya with Khattab," said Dilobar, in a reference to a prominent Jordanian-born guerrilla then fighting on the Chechen side. "The court ignored the statement from the university. And that was also the same time that Khudoiberganov's children were born, 10 months apart. How could he have been in Chechnya?"

The judge also ignored testimony from Farkhod Kadyrkulov, charged with killing the jeweller, who said Khudoiberganov was not part of the group that carried out the robbery.

Amnesty International reported that procedure was repeatedly breached during both the investigation and the trial, and that there were signs that Khudoiberganov was tortured to coerce a confession.

When Uzbek police came to arrest Khudoiberganov two days after the Tashkent bombings, he had already fled to Tajikistan because, he says, he saw other devout Muslims being rounded up in a general police sweep.

So the police targeted his family instead. Dilobar recounts that they immediately arrested Iskender's older brother Sanjar - even though he works for the police ministry. As she told the court, Sanjar was treated as a hostage, spending six months confined in the basement of the National Security Service, SNB, and four more in a police cell. During this time he was subject to torture and abuse, Dilobar says. He was fired from his ministry job.

Their father, Erkin Khudoiberganov, a radio journalist, was allegedly beaten by police while being interrogated about Iskander's whereabouts. He suffered a stroke and was admitted to hospital. His mother Matliuba, a doctor and teacher, was also beaten and tortured under interrogation and hospitalised, while Dilobar was expelled from Tashkent State University.

On June 10, someone claiming to be an SNB agent rang Erkin and said that if his daughter did not end her campaign, his other son Sanjar would end up on death row. Next day he had another stroke.

In her quest for mercy if not justice, Dilobar has been helped by Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture, a local group set up by Tamara Chikunova, whose own son Dmitry was executed in July 2000. Both women spoke about the death penalty in an address to European Bank of Reconstruction and Development meeting held in Tashkent in May.

But this has exposed Chikunova to persecution, too. After the speech, her mother received a phone call from someone claiming to work for the SNB, who warned that a death-row cell would soon be ready for Chikunova, too.

Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture estimate that up to 200 judicial killings are carried out every year in Uzbekistan. Most of those executed are between 18 and 30 years old. Prisoners on death row are held in poor conditions, in metal bunkers with no heating or ventilation, and are forbidden any personal effects. They are fed solely on a watery soup, and since they are not allowed to receive food parcels they are poorly nourished. There is no provision for exercise, so they leave their cells only for meetings - or for execution. Physical mistreatment by guards is reportedly common.

Although the law requires relatives to be informed three days before a sentence is carried out, Chikunova's group claims this rule is never observed.

After six months on death row, Iskander Khudoiberganov has become very thin - but he remains optimistic that his sister can save him. He still has one final chance of clemency, when his case goes to the presidential commission.

"Our family has been brutally treated for no reason," Dilobar told IWPR. "Iskander wasn't involved in any criminal activities. What terrorist acts did he commit, what sabotage, what army did he serve in as a mercenary? And now they want to take him away from us forever."

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project manager in Tashkent.