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Uzbekistan: Police Seal off Town for Trial

Uzbekistan: Police Seal off Town for Activist’s Trial

No Court Access for Independent Observers

(New York) – Uzbek authorities blocked access to the trial of a human rights defender who had spoken out about the May 13, 2005 Andijan massacre, Human Rights Watch said today. Uzbek law enforcement blocked the court building in a small town near Tashkent where the trial was to be held and set up check points along the roads to the town. Human Rights Watch and others were turned away by police and denied access.

“Uzbek authorities are going further than ever to prevent observers from monitoring this trial,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The human rights defender on trial, Mukhtabar Tojibaeva, is head of Burning Hearts, a nongovernmental organization based in the Fergana valley. She has been in custody since October 7, charged with numerous crimes including slander, extortion and polluting the environment.

“There is absolutely no reason why this trial, and the trials of political activists, should not be open,” said Cartner.

At 10:00 am on January 30, a Human Rights Watch representative and his translator arrived at the edge of Dustobod (about 60 km from Tashkent), where the trial was to take place. Two police cars had set up a checkpoint and were stopping every car entering the town. Six uniformed police officers asked travellers where they were going and examined their identification documents. After the Human Rights Watch representative told the police that he was going to the trial they instructed him to wait and said that they were calling their superior. Five minutes later, they told the Human Rights Watch representative he could not enter the town. The policemen said Makhmud Sirojitdinov, a Ministry of Interior colonel, gave them the command and told them the trial was closed. Later, the Ministry of Interior press service told Human Rights Watch that Sirojitdinov's name did not exist in their records.

While he was waiting, the Human Rights Watch representative saw police walk onto a bus and question people about whether they were from Fergana, Tojibaeva’s home province. At least one local human rights defender also reported that he was prevented from entering the courthouse and observing Tojibaeva’s trial.

“Uzbek authorities seem intent on hindering Tojibaeva’s relatives, friends, and colleagues as well as independent trial monitors from getting to the trial,” said Cartner. “We are deeply concerned that Tojibaeva get a fair and transparent hearing.”

Tojibaeva faces 17 charges, including slander, extortion, swindling, tax evasion, polluting the environment, and violating rules on trade and land use, which stem from a dispute she had with an employee of a fish farm she owns.

Human Rights Watch fears the charges are a politically motivated effort to stop Tojibaeva’s human rights work. Tojibaeva, a vocal critic of the Uzbek government, was arrested on October 7, the day before she was to leave for an international conference in Dublin.

In past years Uzbek authorities often allowed trial monitoring—though with numerous exceptions—but in the months since the May 13 massacre they have routinely denied defendants’ relatives, the international community, and even lawyers access to court buildings. Under Uzbek law, trials are open unless declared closed by the judge for reasons such as protecting national security or the interests of minors.

Two additional trials of political activists are also expected to be under way this week, and yesterday’s police action raised concern about whether they would be open.

On January 30, the trial of Nodira Khidoiatova – coordinator of the opposition group Sunshine Coalition of Uzbekistan – was scheduled to continue. She is charged under seven articles of the Uzbek Criminal Code, including robbery, extortion, plunder, embezzlement, and theft. International monitors were allowed to observe the Khidoiatova’s first hearing last week. The trial of Sanjar Umarov – the leader of the Sunshine Coaltion who faces embezzlement charges – is expected to start February 3.

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