Disregarding allegations of torture, an Uzbek court today convicted six men with ties to a banned political party in a high-profile political trial.
The attorney for four of the men reported that all six defendants, including the brothers of exiled political opposition leader Muhammad Solih, testified that they had been cruelly and repeatedly tortured. A statement signed by all six claimed that torture methods included electric shocks, beatings with batons and plastic bottles filled with water, and the use of the "bag of death," a plastic bag used to temporarily suffocate victims. Authorities forced all six—Muhammad Bekjanov, Rashid Bekjanov, Kobil Dierov, Mamadali Mahmudov, Ne'mat Sharipov, and Iusuf Ruzimuradov—to sign self-incriminating statements and coerced several to declare their guilt on a government-sponsored national television program.
"This is an appalling example of political persecution," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "These men were arrested, tortured and now convicted for possession of a banned newspaper, for their political affiliation and for no other reason."
The six men were convicted because of their alleged affiliation with Erk (Freedom), a political party, founded in 1990 and banned by Uzbek authorities in December 1992. Its leader, Muhammad Solih, was the only candidate to run against President Islam Karimov in the presidential elections of 1991. He was forced into exile in 1994, fleeing arrest on fabricated criminal charges. This latest round of political arrests and convictions comes against a backdrop of widespread arbitrary and discriminatory arrests following the February 16 bombings in Tashkent. The government has publicly implicated Solih as a conspirator in the bombings, a charge he denies.
Uzbek authorities barred local and international observers from attending the trial, including representatives from the OSCE Liaison Office. One defendant, however, managed to deliver a copy of his court testimony to Human Rights Watch. In it, renowned writer Mamadali Mahmudov describes the horrifying torture methods and threats used by Uzbek authorities to force him to confess:
"...in the basement, they regularly beat me...they burned my legs and arms. They put a [gas mask] on me and cut off the air...[and] hung me up by my hands, which they tied behind my back."
"They told me they were holding my wife and daughters and threatened to rape them in front of my eyes."
The other five defendants also reported that authorities threatened to rape their wives. Officers also allegedly threatened to rape Mahmudov and tormented him, describing the various ways in which they would kill him.
Mahmudov's allegations are consistent with Human Rights Watch's documentation of torture methods routinely used by Uzbek authorities. Persons held incommunicado, as Mahmudov and the other defendants were for several months, are particularly at risk for abuse. Authorities allegedly kept Mahmudov in a basement detention cell, the location of which was unknown even to him, for the first month and a half of his detention.
The state's case focused on the defendants' alleged possession and distribution of Erk (the party's newspaper), which the prosecutor claimed contains slanderous criticisms of the President of Uzbekistan, a violation of the criminal code's article 158 (3). Erk was the last of the opposition newspapers to be published in Uzbekistan before it was banned by the government in 1993. Other charges included conspiracy to overthrow the government and participation in an illegal or banned organization.
Without access to court documents or the presence of trial observers, it remains unclear exactly which articles or statements in the paper the court found objectionable, as do the grounds for the charges. However, the timing of the charges and the conduct of the case point to political motives.
Uzbek authorities' conduct of the arrest and trial of the six men violated domestic criminal procedure and international standards. All were held incommunicado in Uzbekistan for long periods prior to trial. On the first day of the hearings, attended by Human Rights Watch before the proceedings were sealed, the court was forced to postpone the process because the authorities had not acquainted defendants with the charges against them. After the trial had already begun, one defendant stood up and announced that he still was without a lawyer, five months after his arrest.
Mamadali Mahmudov, 50, wrote The Immortal Cliffs, a novel which helped lay the foundation for Uzbek national self-awareness in the late Soviet period. He was twice before arrested on criminal charges in retaliation for his association with Erk. In 1995 he was sentenced to four years in prison, but was later amnestied.
Ne'mat Sharipov, the defendant who received the shortest sentence, eight years, is a businessman who is not a member of Erk and whose only connection to the opposition party was his alleged transport of several copies of a book by Muhammad Solih from Ukraine to Uzbekistan.
Four of the men—Muhammad Bekjanov, Iusuf Ruzimuradov, Kobil Diyarov and Ne'mat Sharipov—were extradited from Ukraine by Uzbek authorities in March.
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