Defendants generally have only a slim chance for a fair trial in Uzbekistan. Defendants charged with religion-related violations face additional problems and obstacles to obtaining due process during the trial phase. The country’s judiciary is not independent of the executive.917 The procurator—investigator and prosecutor of a case—holds the balance of power in a courtroom. Judges display marked deference toward and bias in favor of procurators. They approach defendants with hostility and suspicion rather than presumption of innocence. Corruption in the judiciary is rampant.918
In trials of independent Muslims, defendants are denied the right to examine witnesses against them.919 An aggressive defense is the rare exception that proves the rule: defense counsel is sidelined, fearful, and passive. Defendants themselves must stick to the “script” of confession and contrition or else they are silenced. Judges routinely ignore or inadequately address court testimony regarding fabrication of evidence and coercive methods—including torture—used to procure defendants’ testimony to police.
In Uzbekistan court cases are presided over by a professional judge and two assessors. Called “people’s judges” during the Soviet system, lay assessors are private citizens who attend hearings and can question defendants and witnesses, but who are most often passive. Many lay assessors at trials observed by Human Rights Watch slept through significant portions of the hearings.
The procurator—who has supervised the investigation of the case and then prosecutes the case at trial—clearly has more power in the courtroom than the defense. In dozens of trials monitored by Human Rights Watch, judges consistently deferred to procurators on technical and material questions. Procurators have the right to appeal cases when they are not satisfied with the verdict or the length of the prison sentence.920 Having one’s decisions appealed and overturned or altered can damage a judge’s career. A 1999 U.S. Department of Justice report on Uzbekistan’s judiciary states, “In some cases the court may impose a heavy sentence to avoid an appeal from the procurator. It is said that if a procurator appeals a judge three or more times, that judge’s career is virtually over.”921
In Uzbekistan (as in many countries of the former Soviet Union) trials almost always result in convictions. In trials of independent Muslims, a guilty verdict is virtually a foregone conclusion, as judges fall in line with the country’s strict laws on religion.922 With rare exception, conviction of the accused is inevitable. Human Rights Watch is aware of one independent Muslim having been acquitted. While judges can use discretion in determining sentences, they uniformly follow the lead of the procuracy’s requests for prison terms. In earlier periods of the campaign, particularly after the 1999 bombings in Tashkent, sentences typically were from twelve to twenty years of imprisonment. In 2003 sentences were typically from eight to ten years of imprisonment.
In trials of independent Muslims, courts routinely violate defendants’ right to examine prosecution witnesses. A principal form of incriminating evidence was “confessions” obtained from defendants and prosecution witnesses—many themselves independent Muslim prisoners—often under torture or other forms of coercion. If such witnesses had appeared in court personally, the defense could have questioned them, including about the circumstances under which they made their testimony to law enforcement or security agents. But the prosecution routinely relied on what it claimed were written statements made by convicted persons incriminating the defendants on trial. In a few cases, the person whose written testimony was used in a case had been executed before the trial began. Other state witnesses were detainees simultaneously facing criminal charges in separate cases and were vulnerable to coercion. There is evidence that police and security agents coerced false statements from detainees who were forced to stand witness in trials of people they did not know.923
Confessions and third person testimony form a critical element in cases against independent Muslims because in the majority of cases they are prosecuted in groups924 consisting of unrelated defendants whom police compelled to testify against each other.925 Prosecutors often argued their case against only one or two main defendants accused of leading anti-constitutional religious activity. They often failed even to identify criminal acts allegedly committed by other co-defendants. These remaining defendants were prosecuted mainly on the basis of allegations that they were connected to or affiliated with the principal defendants. This method of prosecution suggests an urgency to produce convictions and to move large numbers of detainees through the judicial system. It also permits prosecutors to focus on one main defendant, coerce other defendants into accusing him of serious crimes, and then, on the basis of coerced testimony, accuse those secondary defendants of association with him and with failing to inform the authorities of his illegal activities.926
Witness testimony is also crucial because the prosecution rarely has any other evidence to make the case that independent Muslims’ actions could have amounted to an attempt to overthrow the government, the most common charge against them. Criticizing the prosecution, the attorney for accused “Wahhabi” Murod Kosymov—one of seventeen co-defendants—noted the vagueness of the charges, the lack of supporting details provided by the accusers. “You turn the pages of the indictment and you can see they’ve been accused of all these articles, but there is nothing saying when and where they committed these crimes, when and where they planned to overthrow the constitution.”927 Noting the absence of any witnesses for the prosecution or other evidence to prove his client guilty, the attorney for accused Hizb ut-Tahrir member Bakhtior Usmanov stated in court, “The procurator’s words alone are not enough; there should be facts also.”928
As described above, prosecutors relied heavily on evidence planted by police. Rarely was the defense able to question those who had vouched for that evidence, because in most cases the expert opinions of narcotics or ballistics and weapons experts were provided to the court in written form only, and in many cases were the only evidence presented at trial. In other cases, testimony from state witnesses whom police had brought along on the searches was the only certification offered to substantiate charges.
Defense often cannot examine witnesses from the state Committee on Religious Affairs, which, as noted in “Institutions of Control,” provides “expert testimony” that routinely serves as a crucial basis for convictions. In his court testimony, Hafizulla Nosirov, the reputed leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan, argued that the right to confront his “expert” accuser was essential. He offered the judge the following critique of the state’s experts: “In my first speech I told you about the contact I had with the Committee on Religious Affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers. From that communication, I conclude that the experts they have used to assess our leaflets don’t know anything, and they avoid my questions. I request the invitation of religious experts into the courtroom to further discuss [the leaflets]. Let him [the expert] substantiate what he thinks we are doing wrong, here in the courtroom.”929 After consulting with the procurator, the judge declined Nosirov’s request.
A Tashkent judge presiding over a trial against fifteen members of Hizb ut-Tahrir held in June and July 2003 also declined without explanation the defense’s request to examine the Committee on Religious Affairs expert. 930
Questions posed by judges suggested they had predetermined the trial outcomes, in violation of the principle of the presumption of innocence.931 Presiding over a case of twelve accused Hizb ut-Tahrir members in May 1999, Judge Mansrur Akhmadjonov of the Tashkent City Court turned to one defendant during the young man’s testimony and asked, “How old is your daughter?” When the man replied that his daughter was still a young child, the judge reportedly told him, “By the time you get out of prison, she’ll be grown up and married.”932 In another case, when Judge Akhmadjonov presided over a trial of nine alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members, a person who had been in the courtroom recalled: “On the first day of trial, the judge threatened the defendants that he would send them to Jaslyk [prison, the harshest in Uzbekistan].”933 The lawyer for the defense protested, and the defendants themselves reportedly refused to speak following the judge’s outburst. Judge Akhmadjonov allegedly retaliated by moving the trial to Tashkent prison and blocking entry to the defendants’ relatives.934
Also, as noted in “Torture and Mistreatment in Pre-trial Detention,” judges often disregard evidence of torture or other illegal police conduct. The following example is illustrative. Judge Sharipov of the Tashkent City Court, who sentenced seventeen defendants for “Wahhabism” in August 2000, considered their recantation of earlier self-incriminating statements “an attempt to avoid punishment.”935 According to a relative of Gairat Sabirov (one of the defendants in that case), when Sabirov testified that police had held him in solitary confinement, burned him with cigarettes, and raped him, the judge continuously interrupted his testimony.936 Rights defender Mikhail Ardzinov, who observed the trial, recalled that “the defense attorneys demonstrated the insufficiency of the evidence against the defendants and the weakness of the state’s arguments...but the judge ignored them completely.”937
Judges often make comments that are inappropriate, though not in violation of the right to a fair trial. At times, the judges’ statements rise to the level of degrading treatment of defendants.938 For example, a lay assessor in the Tashkent City Court trial against thirteen Hizb ut-Tahrir members asked a defendant “Are you faithful to your oath [to Hizb ut-Tahrir] or did you change your mind? Remember, you have two children.”939 When the defendant explained to the lay judge that his oath had been a vow to be faithful to religion, the presiding judge accused him of being against the constitution and queried, “With what in the Uzbek republic are you not satisfied? This country gave you an education, food, etc. Why are you not satisfied?” He later added, “Your parents are here, are you not ashamed? Don’t you feel ashamed? Don’t you feel ashamed?”940 In response to a question from the presiding judge, Rakhmonov, also about asking for forgiveness, co-defendant Hikmat Rasulov sounded exasperated: “No one has said anything here about the six months of torture, and now you are demanding that we apologize...!”941
Judges’ improper pronouncements extended to the correctness or error of certain religious beliefs or practices. In the trial of accused Hizb ut-Tahrir member Feruza Kurbanova, Judge Mirzahidov said to her, “You became a member and gave an oath. If you really believe in God, you shouldn’t take oaths.”942 One woman described to Human Rights Watch how the judge presiding at her son’s trial regarded her own religious practice as evidence of her son’s guilt: “When I went to the trial, the judge [pointing at my headscarf] said to my son, ‘You are no good. If you were, then your mother wouldn’t wear that.’”943 Then the judge reportedly turned to the woman and said, “The state doesn’t allow this. You should dress in European style...”944
The obstacles to establishing innocence are often so daunting that most defense attorneys give up long before they have begun. The defense is given little time to speak at trial. Defense attorneys are intimidated and threatened.945 Fear of retribution has led lawyers to refuse to take on the cases of independent Muslims and affects the quality of their defense.946 State-appointed attorneys, often the only counsel available to defendants in trials of independent Muslims, do not always act in the interests of their clients and regularly offer weak defense arguments. By and large, statements by defense counsel amount to little more than pleas for leniency in sentencing and rarely include a challenge to the charges against the defendants. Defense attorneys often fail to call witnesses for the defense and when they do, they have found themselves without the backing of the judge and police necessary to compel a witness to appear in court. Material evidence is often not presented in court, and the defense cannot summon independent experts to challenge opinions (almost always written) by government forensic, narcotics, or religion experts.
Defendants, for their part, are literally relegated to the sidelines during the process—they are kept in barred cages on one side of the courtroom and are given only limited time to speak. The part of the trial allotted to the defendant often includes an initial statement as to whether or not he or she acknowledges the charges against him/her and confirms the confessions he or she has made during the pre-trial investigation. Following the procurator’s presentation of the charges, defendants are asked to give an oral statement outlining their crimes. When defendants digress from the “script” by pleading innocence, complaining of torture or coercion by police, or making other statements frowned upon by the court, they are often interrupted and silenced. After the procurator has made closing arguments and asked for specific sentences for those on trial, the accused are allowed to give what is called their “last word.” This is the time, typically, for the defendants to express their contrition for their wrongdoing and ask for the forgiveness of the state and leniency of the court. While there were some indications that a failure to ask for forgiveness during this speech led to more severe sentences than were given to contrite defendants, in the vast majority of cases defendant statements appeared to fail to influence the judge’s final decision.
Independent Muslims face lengthy and harsh sentences. Judges show little independence in determining sentences, condemning men to roughly the number of years in prison demanded by the procurator and very rarely finding against the state.
As noted earlier, the Russian rights group Memorial documented 2,297 cases of political and religious prisoners (1,967 of whom were not charged with acts of violence). Out of the 2,297 people arrested, Memorial succeeded in obtaining detailed information on the sentences of 1,649. The group’s October 2001 report on the subject states that the majority, 1,002 people, were sentenced to strict-regime prisons. Another 515 people, convicted on charges related to their politics or religion, were sent to general-regime facilities, and thirty-four were sent to the country’s “prison-regime” facility—the strictest form of incarceration. Fifty-one people received sentences that did not involve prison time. One person was acquitted.947
Unjust verdicts have seldom been redressed on appeal. Appeals courts have reduced sentences in some cases, but in general they have maintained the verdicts of the lower courts; so fifteen years may be reduced to twelve, but the underlying police methods and indicting arguments are not challenged. Indeed, fear that the appeals court would actually increase the lower court’s penalty has often kept defendants and their families from launching an appeal. Moreover, conditions in pre-trial detention have been so harsh that some convicted religious prisoners have forgone their right to appeal in the interest of reaching what they believed would be the relative safety of a post-conviction facility.
Although the majority of trials are officially open to the public, in practice, family members of the accused face a series of obstacles when trying to gain access to the court. Authorities often fail to notify family members that their relative’s case has been sent to trial. Many therefore do not learn that the hearings have begun until well into the proceedings, and sometimes not until the trial is over. Because court clerks typically refuse to provide information about the time that a case will be heard, relatives end up waiting outside the courthouse for a trial to start for days or weeks on end. Authorities at courthouses sometimes lie to relatives about the timing of a case, in order to get them to leave and to allow proceedings to go on without observers. In what appears to be a trend at trials of independent Muslims, court authorities often limit access to the hearings to one relative of each defendant. Anxiety becomes acute as families are forced to decide in a matter of seconds whether a defendant’s husband, wife, mother, father, brother, sister or other relative will be the one to attend the trial, and perhaps see him or her for the last time outside of prison. Guards physically prevent those without permission from attending court hearings, again, even for “open” proceedings.
The denial of access appeared at times to be yet another discriminatory element of the cases against independent Muslims. For instance, the judge presiding over Uigun and Oibek Ruzmetov’s trial allegedly denied their mother, Darmon Sultanova, access and told her that “Wahhabists” are not authorized to attend trials.948
Other times, courthouse guards or other authorities of the court demand bribes in exchange for permission to attend the proceedings. One female relative of independent Muslim prisoner Tavakkaljon Akhmedov reported that courthouse guards demanded bribes from family members who wanted to attend his trial: “We paid to attend the trial. We put one packet of cigarettes and some money in our passports [when we handed them to the guards].”949 Later, during this trial, co-defendant Nematullo Bobokhonov testified that today’s society in Uzbekistan is marred by corruption and prostitution. “When the judge asked Bobokhonov for proof of corruption, no one spoke up, even though we had all paid a bribe to be there,” said an observer. During the lunch break, police allegedly took Bobokhonov back to the prison transport truck and beat him “to the point where his pulse stopped.” After the break, persons in the court noted Bobokhonov’s poor condition: “We saw with our own eyes that Bobokhonov was bent over and in bad shape. The judge laughed at him and said, ‘Oh, you must have eaten something bad,’” said one eyewitness.950 One relative told Human Rights Watch: “On the day of the verdict, I [Akhmedov’s wife] asked for a meeting for my children with my husband. I gave the police 700 som, all that I had, but they said they would only do it for more and refused.”951
A relative of one of seventeen alleged Wahhabis reported that she and other family members were compelled to pay 5,000 som each to guards outside the courtroom for permission to give the defendants food. “To see a man for just two minutes,” she said, “costs 3,000 som.”952
Many of the relatives of thirteen men tried by the Tashkent City Court for Hizb ut-Tahrir membership in June and July 1999 told Human Rights Watch that they had been compelled to pay to attend the proceedings. One defendant’s relative recalled, “I got a call from the clerk of the court, who said I needed to pay the lawyer in order to sit in the courtroom. This was Bahrom, the secretary. ‘We paid already,’ we said, but he said, ‘You paid for the investigator; now you pay to go to the court.’ If you don’t pay, they don’t allow you in.”953
Priority access is given to plainclothes security agents who sit in the courtroom. Foreign observers, including diplomats, journalists, and representatives of international rights groups are given access on a secondary and uneven basis. Access for these groups has been repeatedly denied under a variety of pretexts, from lack of space in the courtroom, to a requirement for special permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of Justice to attend a specific trial. More often, particularly in the earlier years of the campaign, guards and court house officials lie to international observers who arrive to monitor a trial, telling them that the proceeding has been cancelled when in fact it has not or giving foreigners a false time as the start of the hearing—and later denying the person entry because he or she is “too late.” Judges have also denied access to international observers—either through a message delivered by proxy or a direct in-person refusal, often accompanied by a story regarding scheduling delays or an instruction to return with permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attend the trial.
Despite frequent difficulties gaining access to courts, Human Rights Watch representatives attended dozens of trials of religious Muslims in provinces throughout Uzbekistan.
917 “…in practice President Islam Karimov and the centralized executive branch that serves him dominate political life and exercise nearly complete control over the other branches …. Despite constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary, the executive branch heavily influenced the courts in both civil and criminal cases.” U.S. Department of State, 2002 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released by the Bureau for Democracy, Rights and Labor, March 31, 2003 [online], http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2002/18400.htm (retrieved January 6, 2004).
918 Bribery and other means of extra-legal influence can rarely, if ever, make a difference in the verdict reached in a religion-related trial. Corrupt practices can, however, have an effect at the edges of the process; if sufficient, for instance, they can influence the length of a sentence or whether or not relatives of a suspect are allowed to attend the trial or visit the defendant.
919 Article 14.3 (e) of the ICCPR states that in the determination of any criminal charges against them, everyone shall have the right “[t]o examine, or have examined, the witnesses against him and to obtain the attendance and examination of witnesses on his behalf under the same conditions as witnesses against him.”
920Article 479 of the Uzbek criminal procedure code.
921 Assessment of the Criminal Justice System of the Republic of Uzbekistan, United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, June 18, 1999, p. 32.
922 Mr. Craig Murray, the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, referred to this high conviction rate in a speech at Freedom House: “In the Uzbek criminal justice system the conviction rate is almost 100%.” Tashkent, October 17, 2002.
923 For example, see the case of Bakhtior Musaev, “Torture and Mistreatment in Pre-trial Detention” in Chapter IV.
924 They are not, however, charged with conspiring together as a group.
925 For example, in one group case of fifteen men accused of Wahhabism, all of the defendants complained in court that police had pressured them to give false statements during the preliminary investigation. (See “Imams, Their Followers, and ‘Wahhabis’” in Chapter III, Fifteen Accused Wahhabis, June–November 2000, for more details on this case and the use of defendant testimony to incriminate others.) Some testified that they had been forced to incriminate others, including people they did not know. Defendant Kakhramon Saidkhojaev gave court testimony that called into question the statements he had signed during interrogation, including testimony regarding other defendants’ alleged participation in religious classes and in an alleged pro-jihad movement. In his statement to police, cited in the verdict, Saidkhojaev named several of his co-defendants, saying during religious classes they studied Koran and hadith, and were then called to jihad. However, when Saidkhojaev took the stand in court, he said that he was innocent, that the information in his testimony to police had been coerced and was untrue. Verdict issued by Judge K.A. Iusupov, Tashkent City Court trial held in the Akmal Ikramov District Court building, November 20, 2000.
Saidkhojaev’s statements given under interrogation were also used as part of the basis for the conviction of Imam Iuldashev and his co-defendants, in a separate trial. (Unofficial U.S. Embassy transcript of the Tashkent City Court hearing, April 9, 2001. See “Imams, Their Followers, and ‘Wahhabis’” in Chapter III for details on that case.) Co-defendant Shukhrat Balikov also testified that, under pressure, he had falsely incriminated a group of seventeen men who were tried separately. Like Saidkhojaev, he told investigators that the other men had studied Islam and were called to jihad. Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Tashkent City Court hearing held in the Akmal Ikramov District Court building, Tashkent, November 1, 2000. (See “Imams, Their Followers, and ‘Wahhabis’” in Chapter III for further details regarding Balikov’s testimony and the case of seventeen “Wahhabis”).
926 See above, for example, the case of Imam Iuldashev and the men accused because of their connection to him, “Imams, Their Followers, and ‘Wahhabis’” in Chapter III.
927 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Tashkent City Court, Judge Sharipov presiding, August 4, 2000. The case is that of seventeen “Wahhabis,” described in “Imams, Their Followers, and ‘Wahhabis’” in Chapter III.
928 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Tashkent City Court hearing held in the Chilanzar District Court building, Tashkent, July 9, 1999.
929 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Syrdaria Province Court, Gulistan, March 26, 2000.
930 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Akhmal Ikramov District Court, Tashkent, June 30, 2003.
931 In some cases, the rush by police to take inventory of a defendant’s possessions prior to trial also indicates violation of the principle of the presumption of innocence. For example, a member of the Sabirov family told Human Rights Watch that police surveyed the family’s possessions for future confiscation before the trial against Gairat Sabirov had even begun. Sabirov’s relative said that Hosan Manjurov, deputy to police investigator Khojaev, came to the family home with the explanation that the charges against Gairat included confiscation as part of the punishment and asked in whose name were the house and family car. Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, August 14, 2000. According to Sabirov’s relative, police paid a similar visit to the home of Sabirov’s co-defendant, Azgam Astankhulov.
932 Human Rights Watch interview with a person who attended the trial, name withheld, Tashkent, July 22, 1999.
933 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, February 26, 2001. Tashkent City Court trial held in the Akmal Ikramov District Court building, Judge Mansrur Akhmadjonov presiding.
935 Tashkent City Court verdict issued by Judge Sharipov, August 21, 2000.
936 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, August 4, 2000.
937 Human Rights Watch interview with Mikhail Ardzinov, Tashkent, August 21, 2000.
938 Article 7 of the ICCPR states that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
939 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Tashkent City Court trial held in the Chilanzar District Court building, Tashkent, June 30, 1999.
942 Human Rights Watch unofficial transcript, Shaikhantaur District Court, Tashkent, March 7, 2001.
943 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, February 27, 2001.
945 The Nazarov family’s lawyer, for example, reported that authorities harassed her and tapped her telephone, that security agents followed her whenever she visited the Nazarov family, and that police regularly questioned neighbors about her. Interview with Irina Mikulina at a meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, and Human Rights Watch, Tashkent, May 23, 2000.
946 For example, the family of Abdurakhim Abdurakhmonov told Human Rights Watch that at least three attorneys declined to represent the imam due to intimidation by security agents. See “Imams, Their Followers, and ‘Wahhabis’” in Chapter III. Human Rights Watch interview with Mubarak Abdurakhmonova, Tashkent, May 26, 2000.
947 The remainder includes thirty-six men condemned to death, presumably on charges of involvement in terrorism, and one human rights defender forcibly placed in an institution for the mentally ill. Nine people who were placed under official arrest, by sanction of the procurator, were released during the course of the investigation and had the cases against them closed. Memorial Human Rights Center and the Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia, List of People Arrested and Tried in Uzbekistan for Political and Religious Reasons (December 1997-August 2001), Moscow, October 2001.
948 Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Theo van Boven, p. 31.
949 Human Rights Watch interview with relatives of Tavakkaljon Akhmedov, names withheld, Asaka, Andijan, May 2000.
951 Human Rights Watch interview with the wife of Tavakkaljon Akhmedov, name withheld at her request, Asaka, Andijan, May 2000.
952 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, date withheld.
953 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, July 12, 1999.