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An Uzbek court based its verdict almost exclusively on confessions that defendants alleged were obtained under torture when it convicted them on Wednesday of participation in an illegal religious group, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Tashkent Province Court sentenced one of the defendants to two years in a labor colony, and the others to two to three years of corrective labor. The men were convicted under provisions in the Uzbek criminal code that have frequently been used by the authorities in their ongoing campaign against independent Muslims who practice their faith outside government controls.

At the beginning of the trial, five of the defendants testified that they had been tortured and severely beaten while in police detention. They reported that local police officers (operativniki) in the Tashkent suburb of Yangiyul had beaten them severely on their backs, necks and heads. Ultimately the defendants signed confessions, but testified that they had done so simply to end the abuse.

“Torture remains systematic in Uzbekistan, and this trial raises serious concern that Uzbek courts base their verdicts on confessions obtained under torture,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This case provides a rare glimpse into the way that torture allegations come to light, but are disregarded by Uzbekistan’s courts.”

In court, the defendants revoked their confessions, named those they accused of the ill-treatment, and gave detailed descriptions of their abuse.

Uzbekistan has a well-documented record of torture and ill-treatment in police custody and prisons. When serving as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven in 2003 found that torture in Uzbekistan was “systematic.” More recently, in an April 10 interview on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the current U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, said “there is ample evidence that both police and other security forces have been and are continuing to systematically practice torture, in particular against dissidents or people who are opponents of the regime.” Methods of torture in Uzbekistan include beatings with truncheons, electric shock, hanging people by their wrists or ankles, rape and sexual humiliation, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, and threats of physical harm to relatives.

The defendants described in detail how they were severely beaten by the police and also told of police threats to harm their family members. “If you don’t sign, I will rape you with a nightstick,” a police officer reportedly told defendant Dilshod Maripaliev during his interrogation. Defendants reported that the abuse occurred when they were alone with the police officers, never in front of their lawyers or the investigator. Several defendants also testified that they had been shown other detainees who were severely beaten in order to pressure them further to confess.

Relatives of the defendants also reported that they had been harassed and threatened by law enforcement agents during the pre-trial period. The mother of one defendant told a representative from Human Rights Watch that she had been taken to the Uzbek secret service (SNB) in Yangiyul and pressured to confess that she was involved in politics and had instigated trouble in her neighborhood. When she refused to sign, the officer threatened that she would be raped. “They will do with you whatever they want,” the officer reportedly told her. She finally signed, and was then allowed to go home.

The judge questioned why the defendants had not reported the abuse to the investigator or their lawyer. Several of the defendants replied that they did not trust their lawyers; others said they were too scared of the police, who were always present when they met with their lawyer.

One defendant, Mansur Holiqov, said that he had tried to tell his lawyer about the ill-treatment, but the operativniki told him that “here, even the walls have ears.” Holiqov added, “There was no point in telling my lawyer about the beating. He was going to leave and I had to stay there. I told him that they beat me; then he left and they beat me more.” Another defendant, Alisher Karjavov, actually testified that his lawyer had told him during the investigation to confess even if he was not guilty, because this “would make things easier.”

The judge also asked one defendant why he had not complained to the prosecutor’s office. The defendant answered that he had been denied pen and paper in police custody, but had submitted a complaint once he was transferred to the pretrial prison.

“The judge did not give sufficient weight to the defendants’ statements that they confessed under torture, even though the widespread use of torture in Uzbekistan is well-documented,” said Cartner.

The prosecutor presented only one witness, Lutfullo Ibrogimov, who testified that Madaliev and the other defendants were religious fundamentalists, who had held illegal religious meetings, discussed ideas of Islam, and tried to overthrow the government. However, Ibrogimov’s testimony was devoid of any details, and the prosecution did not introduce any other witnesses or present any exhibits to support Ibrogimov’s allegations. At the close of evidence, the case rested entirely on the testimony from Ibrogimov and the confessions of the defendants.

In 2005, Ibrogimov had been found guilty of stealing from Madaliev’s shop. Shortly after his conviction, he filed a complaint against Madaliev on November 16 accusing him of religious extremism. One day later, Madaliev was arrested.

In response to a request from the lawyers, the judge summoned police officer Sokhib Norov, who had been accused by the defendants as one of the four officers involved in the ill-treatment. Norov denied having beaten any of the defendants or having exerted any pressure on them to confess. He stated that he was told by the investigator to get “explanatory letters” from four of the defendants -- Maripaliev, Madaliev, Holiqov and Abdukhalilov – and that all four had written the “letter” without any pressure. When questioned by the lawyers, however, Norov could not remember the name of the investigator. He also stated that he did not remember the leaflets allegedly found in Madaliev’s flat although he took part in the house searching.

The judge also summoned Sharapov Mukhammad, an investigator in the case, and asked him whether the defendants had ever complained about ill-treatment. The investigator said, “Only one time Abdukhalilov and Holiqov complained to their lawyers about pressure from the operativniki. I immediately ordered a medical evaluation. They did not find any physical evidence [of abuse].” He also stated that the defendants had confessed without any pressure.

All eight defendants were found guilty of having established an illegal religious group with the aim to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. In his decision, the judge stated that he had found no evidence of torture and concluded that the defendants had alleged ill-treatment only to avoid responsibility for their crimes.

Dilshod Madaliev was sentenced to two years in a labor colony, and Dilshod Maripaliev, Zoir Juraev, Mansur Holiqov, Bakhtiyor Abdukhalilov, and Bakhrom Mirsaitov were sentenced to three years of corrective labor each and were released. Alisher Tulyaganov and Alisher Karjavov were sentenced to two years of corrective labor – more than the prosecutor had requested. All must pay 20 percent of their salary to the state for the period of their sentence.

The eight men were originally charged under article 244-2 of the Uzbek criminal code for “Setting up, leading and participating in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organizations.” In his final argument, the prosecutor asked that the charges against all of the defendants except for Dilshod Madaliev be changed from article 244-2 to article 216 (participation in an illegal religious organization). Madaliev was charged under article 244-2 and 216.

This trial is part of an ongoing campaign by the Uzbek authorities against independent Muslims, whom the government claims are “religious extremists.” The government justifies this campaign by referring to the “war on terror,” failing to distinguish between those who advocate violence and those who peacefully express their religious beliefs. On March 13, 2006, the Chilanzar Court in Tashkent sentenced another eight defendants to between five and six years imprisonment for violations of article 244-2. What is more, between March 28 and March 31, 2006, at least 18 men were arrested in Tashkent; seven are charged under article 244-2 and 11 under article 159 (membership in the organization Hizb ut Tahrir).

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