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The trial of Uzbek human rights defender Umida Niazova unexpectedly got under way in Tashkent today, Human Rights Watch said today. Niazova, who works as a translator for Human Rights Watch's Tashkent office and is a human rights defender and independent journalist in her own right, is one of 15 Uzbek human rights defenders currently in custody in Uzbekistan.

“Umida Niazova should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone tried on politically-motivated charges,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Like many other human rights defenders put on trial in Uzbekistan, she’s the victim of the government’s fierce crackdown on civil society.”

Amnesty International has declared Niazova a prisoner of conscience.

Niazova has been indicted on politically-motivated charges of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and distributing material causing public disorder by using financial support from foreign governments (articles 223, part 1; 246, part 1 and 244/1, part 3 v of the Uzbek criminal code). If found guilty she could face 10 years or more of imprisonment.

Niazova’s lawyer, Tatiana Davydova, was given only 30 minutes’ notice that Niazova’s hearing would start on April 30, 2007 in the Sergeli District Court in Tashkent. Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office director was able to attend the hearing only in the afternoon. Niazova’s aunt and brother were able to attend both sessions, but her other relatives were denied entry. Due to the short notice of the trial, the Tashkent diplomatic and human rights communities were unable to attend. Niazova’s trial was scheduled to start on April 19, 2007. On that date diplomats, journalists, and human rights defenders came to the court, only to learn that the hearing had been “postponed indefinitely” due to the “complexity” of the case.

One of the charges against Niazova stems from research materials in her laptop computer, which the authorities confiscated when they initially detained her on December 21, 2006 at the Tashkent airport. At that time they confiscated her laptop and passport and released her the same day, but continued to investigate her on suspicion of criminal and administrative charges. Her laptop was sent for “expert analysis” to determine whether it contained subversive material.

In mid-January Niazova’s previous lawyer, Abror Yusupov, told her that the expert commission found no grounds for bringing charges, and that she could collect her laptop and passport from the customs agency. Niazova, who was in Kyrgyzstan at the time, returned to Uzbekistan on January 22, 2007 and was arrested soon after crossing the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. She was held incommunicado until January 26.

The prosecution’s indictment of Niazova states that her laptop contained “extremist” and “fundamentalist” materials about the events in Andijan on May 13, 2005, when government forces killed hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters, following an armed uprising early that morning. It further states that the materials seek to “justify actions of the authors of the Andijan events.” When questioned by Davydova about which specific materials contained such statements, witnesses for the prosecution cited only Human Rights Watch’s June 2005 report on the Andijan massacre, “Bullets Were Falling Like Rain,” and an article by a local journalist, Aleksei Volosevich.

Human Rights Watch distributed “Bullets Were Falling Like Rain” to Uzbek officials immediately after its release and requested meetings with them to discuss it. It received no response to these requests.

In the morning session of the April 30 trial, Niazova confessed to the charge of illegal border crossing but denied the other two charges brought against her. She explained to the court that the materials found on her computer were personal copies for work and were not meant for distribution.

When Niazova was asked why she returned to Uzbekistan in January 2007, she responded “because I did not feel guilty.”

Nine witnesses testified in the afternoon session, including two former leaders of nongovernmental organizations, one human rights defender, four representatives from customs control office at the Tashkent International Airport, and three members of the expert commission who were called upon to analyze the content of Niazova’s computer.

The presiding judge, Nizam Rustamov, did not allow witnesses any time to respond to most of his questions and those asked by the defense and prosecution, immediately prompting them with excerpts from written statements they gave during the investigation.

Niazova was able to question witnesses, but the judge interrupted her several times. At one point he asked her, “Are you a lawyer?” and “Why didn’t you stay at home to raise your child?”

Three of the witnesses are experts from the Uzbek Agency of Connections and Information Center of Monitoring Mass Media. They were given Niazova’s notebook and flash stick on December 23, 2006. All three of them had difficulty remembering the conclusions they drew after analyzing Niazova’s computer. When Davydova asked them how they came to the conclusion that Niazova’s computer contained information that propagates religious extremism and fundamentalism, they were unable to specify their findings. One of these witnesses stated that the information on Niazova’s computer is not “dangerous” but still poses a threat if it were distributed.

Another of these three witnesses said that he never told Yusupov that the case was closed, which is what had prompted Niazova to return to Uzbekistan in January. The witness said that an investigation had been opened against Niazova immediately following her initial detention.

The two former NGO leaders both testified that they met with Niazova once and discussed with her their respective projects, goals and implementation of the projects. They both stated that they had never received any money from Niazova and that the funding for their projects had nothing to do with Niazova.

One human rights defender stated that he received a small amount of money from Niazova to pay for his internet connection. When asked about the draft of a project proposal on Niazova’s computer, he explained that it was, in fact, just a draft and he had not yet submitted the project for funding.

The judge forbade the Human Rights Watch representative from taking notes, and after she pointed out that plainclothes agents in attendance were taking notes, banned them from doing so as well.

Niazova’s trial is to resume on May 1 at 11:00 a.m.

Last week another Uzbek human rights defender, Gulbahor Turaeva, was sentenced to six years of imprisonment on politically motivated charges, among them anti-constitutional activities, for bringing in books by exiled opposition leader Muhammed Solih that are unofficially prohibited by the Uzbek authorities.

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