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An independent human rights defender was badly beaten yesterday in Tashkent, Human Rights Watch said today. The beating appears to be the latest in a growing number of physical attacks on human rights defenders, and occurred on the eve of the trial of an Uzbek opposition leader.

The defender, Rakhmatullo Alibaev, told Human Rights Watch that yesterday at about 1:15 p.m. he was at the office of the opposition party Ozod Dekhon (Free Peasant Party) when there was a knock at the door. Alibaev opened the door to a man who identified himself as the brother of the party’s chairwoman, Nigora Khidoiatova. The man walked in, began yelling at him, punched him three times in the face—in the nose and right cheek—and left.

The right side of Alibaev’s face is now badly swollen, and his eye is swollen shut. A doctor found that he suffered a broken nose, a concussion, and trauma to the brain. Alibaev filed a complaint with the police through the doctor’s office.

For several years, Alibaev has monitored trials of independent Muslims charged with religious extremism and assisted victims of economic fraud. He is also affiliated with Ozod Dekhon.

“Alibaev is yet another victim of the relentless assault on human rights defenders in Uzbekistan,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This beating appears timed to send a message to those who might monitor today’s trial.”

While the identity of Alibaev's assailant is not known, Human Rights Watch said it was unlikely that the attack was the act of a private individual. The beating of human rights activists by unidentified men has escalated during recent weeks and is part of a fierce crackdown on civil society that has been underway since the May 13, 2005 massacre of unarmed demonstrators in Andijan.

In recent months, physical attacks on activists in Uzbekistan have tended to coincide with critical events, such as pickets, activists' meetings with the international community, or the opening of a trial.

Alibaev's beating happened the day before the scheduled start of the trial of Nodira Khidoiatova, coordinator of the opposition group Sunshine Coalition of Uzbekistan, and sister of Nigora Khidoiatova. She is charged under seven articles of the Uzbek Criminal Code, including robbery, extortion, plunder, embezzlement, and theft. The trial is to take place in the Tashkent City Court.

Another leader of the Sunshine Coalition, Sanjar Umarov, who is also a relative of the Khidoiatova sisters, will be put on trial next Monday. Umarov, a permanent resident of the United States, is also charged with embezzlement related to an oil company in which he formerly had an ownership interest.

Uzbek human rights defender Rakhmatullo Alibaev was badly
beaten in Tashkent. © 2006 Human Rights Watch

The charges against both Khidoiatova and Umarov appear to be politically motivated. Khidoiatova was arrested on December 18, 2005 at the airport in Tashkent when she returned from a trip to Moscow, where in November she spoke at a press conference on tyranny in Uzbekistan. Umarov was arrested in October after returning to Uzbekistan from a visit to the United States and Russia, where he publicly discussed the Sunshine Coalition’s ideas for economic reform. On October 17, Umarov wrote an open letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in which he called for economic reforms in Uzbekistan and closer economic cooperation with Russia.

The Sunshine Coalition, established earlier this year, is made up of businessmen and academics and has close ties to Ozod Dekhon. The coalition openly criticizes Uzbek government policies and corruption.

“The Uzbek government has a long record of persecuting political opponents by bringing politically motivated charges against them,” said Cartner. “Khidoiatova and Umarov are the latest victims.”

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