In a show trial that violated international fair-trial standards, the Uzbek Supreme Court today handed down a guilty verdict to all of the 15 defendants charged with crimes related to the May violence in Andijan, Human Rights Watch said. The men received prison sentences ranging from 14 to 20 years.
"The outcome was predictable,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The defendants had no chance to mount a real defense, and the court was in no way independent."
The 15 defendants are accused of having organized events in Andijan on May 13 during which a group of armed men seized weapons at a military barracks and police station, led a prison break to free local businessmen unjustly accused of Islamic extremism, and took officials hostage in the local government building. Later the protest grew into a rally of thousands of people voicing their anger about growing poverty and government repression. The Uzbek government responded by using indiscriminate lethal force against the unarmed protesters that was so extensive and unjustified that it amounted to a massacre.
The 15 were charged under more than 30 articles of the Uzbek criminal code, including membership in an extremist organization, murder, and terrorism. At the very beginning of the trial, the men confessed to all of the charges, and several even requested that they be given the death penalty. Their testimony was largely consistent with the prosecutors' indictment—in fact some recited verbatim long passages from the indictment in their confessions—as well as with the government's previous description of the events in the Uzbek media.
“We are very concerned that the defendants may have been forced to confess under torture," said Cartner.
Human Rights Watch has serious concerns that the trial did not comply with international fair-trial standards. The defendants did not have access to competent and effective counsel and were not able to communicate confidentially with their assigned defense lawyers. Furthermore, the defense lawyers did more to undermine their clients' defense than to assist them. For example, not a single defense lawyer argued that his or her client was innocent, none contested the evidence presented during the trial, and instead all highlighted that their clients had confessed immediately and had asked for forgiveness from the president of Uzbekistan.
Six of the defense lawyers even began their remarks by offering condolences to the citizens of Andijan and begging them for forgiveness for defending such "guilty persons." Such conduct seriously undermined the defendants' right to a competent and effective defense and thereby violated the basic principles requiring lawyers to work diligently to protect their clients' rights and interests.
During the trial, the government presented a long parade of witnesses and victims, whose testimony generally corroborated the government version of the May 13 events. However, it did little to paint a clear, detailed picture of what happened on that day and almost nothing to establish the individual criminal liability of any of the 15 men on trial. Only one witness, Mahbuba Zokirova, dared to contradict the official version of the events. She surprised the court by offering a harrowing picture of government violence in Andijan.
At the close of evidence, the case rested entirely on testimony from the defendants, witnesses and victims, as well as some confidential information from the government’s criminal investigation. The prosecution did not introduce any forensic, ballistic or medical reports, nor did it present any exhibits or call expert witnesses.
None of the defendants' relatives attended the trial, raising concerns that they may have been effectively barred or intimidated from attending the proceedings. Instead, the courtroom's gallery was filled with government witnesses and plainclothes officers of the National Security Service (SNB).
Although Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters as they fled the demonstration in Andijan, the government has yet to take any steps to investigate or hold accountable those responsible for the massacre. Instead, it denies all responsibility and persecutes those who seek an independent and transparent investigation.
In the wake of the massacre, the Uzbek authorities have aggressively pursued human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists who have attempted to convey the truth about the events of May 13 and the days that followed. These individuals have been arrested on spurious charges, detained, beaten, threatened, put under surveillance or under de facto house arrest. They have also been set upon by mobs and humiliated through Soviet-style public denunciations.
"The trial did nothing to clarify which government forces actually shot at the unarmed protesters or who gave the orders," said Cartner. "The Uzbek government should immediately grant access to an independent and credible international investigation so that these questions can finally be answered."
The Supreme Court trial that started on September 20 is only the first of many trials related to the Andijan events that are expected to take place. Officially, more than 100 people were detained and charged in relation to the Andijan events. Their trials are expected to begin in the near future.