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Uzbekistan: HR Defender Sentenced “Puppet Theater"

Uzbekistan: Rights Defender Sentenced in “Puppet Theater”

Forced Closures of Freedom House, Eurasia Foundation Bode Ill for Civil Society

(Tashkent) – The criminal process that led to the conviction of Uzbek human rights defender Mukhtabar Tojibaeva violated international fair trial standards, and the conviction should ultimately be set aside, Human Rights Watch said today. Tojibaeva, a prominent human rights defender in Uzbekistan and a vocal critic of the May 2005 Andijan massacre, was sentenced to eight years in prison on March 6.

“The trial that led to the sentence of Tojibaeva is so unsound that her conviction cannot be allowed to stand,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbek authorities should release Tojibaeva immediately, pending a review of the conviction.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed strong concern over this week’s sentencing of an Uzbek opposition leader and the forced closure of two international nongovernmental organizations that had worked to promote civil society in Uzbekistan.

The charges brought against Tojibaeva included slander, extortion, misuse of land, and other non-political charges which stem from a dispute she had with an employee of a fish farm she owns. However, she was also found guilty of membership of an illegal organization (Article 244 of the Uzbek criminal code) on the grounds that her organization, Burning Hearts, a human rights group based in Margilan, is unregistered under Uzbek law.

“We view Tojibaeva’s conviction as part of a pattern of persecution against independent voices and critics within civil society since the Andijan massacre,” said Cartner. “The ferocity of this pattern is unprecedented, even when judged against Uzbekistan’s 14-year history of repression since independence from the Soviet Union.”

On December 2, 2005, the Uzbek authorities declared an amnesty applicable to certain categories of prisoners and detainees. However, in reading the verdict, Judge Abdulaziz Yuldashev explicitly stated that the amnesty could not apply to Tojibaeva as she was a member of an “unregistered” organization. In recent years the offence under Article 244 has more generally been used against those suspected of membership of banned religious organizations, though it has occasionally been used to target human rights defenders for working for “unregistered” human rights organizations.

Human Rights Watch has documented how Uzbek authorities have routinely refused to register independent human rights organizations on the basis of minor technical flaws or other spurious reasons. Unregistered organizations that continue to operate are de facto in violation of the law and extremely vulnerable to government harassment, as are those who work with them.

In court yesterday, Tojibaeva remained defiant. “I do not regret my activities and I will continue them regardless of the verdict,” she said. Following the verdict and sentence today, before trial observers and her relatives, Tojibaeva shouted to the judge that, “This is puppet theater, and a tragedy.”

Background on Tojibaeva’s case
Human Rights Watch said that Tojibaeva was denied the opportunity to prepare and present an adequate defense to the charges brought against her. She did not have adequate time to read the 5,000 pages of case materials, and her lawyer did not have adequate time or opportunity to discuss the materials with her. Tojibaeva was denied the right to consult in private with her lawyer during the investigation and at trial. The defense could not question several state witnesses because they were not asked to appear in court. The court also sent home several defense witnesses before they had a chance to testify.

Tojibaeva had been a vocal critic of the Uzbek government and has spoken openly about the massacre in Andijan in May 2005. In September 2005, she gave an interview to Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, in which she discussed mounting pressure against members of Burning Hearts. She also stated her belief that, following Andijan, local authorities had been given orders to silence all independent human rights defenders and political activists. “We do not need a government that does not follow its own laws,” she said in the interview. She was detained for two days following the Andijan massacre.

Tojibaeva was arrested on October 7, 2005 while preparing to leave for a human rights conference in Dublin, Ireland.

Defenders convicted and international NGOs shuttered
Human Rights Watch said that Tojibaeva is the ninth human rights defender to be convicted in 2006. On January 5, a court handed down a 7-year sentence against Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, a human rights defender from Andijan who was a key source of information to the outside world during the Andijan events and also a vocal critic of the massacre.

On January 11, five members of the human rights organization Ezgulik (Goodness) were convicted on a variety of charges; four were released on parole and one received a 5-year sentence. Two other Ezgulik members were convicted in January.

In other developments, today also saw a court order the closure of Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded human rights organization. The Eurasia Foundation, another U.S.-funded group, announced it was closing following charges that it had registered improperly and had held unauthorized workshops.

Also, yesterday the Tashkent City Court sentenced the leader of the opposition group “Sunshine Coalition of Uzbekistan,” Sanjar Umarov, to 14 years in prison. Last week, Nodira Khidoiatova, coalition’s coordinator, was sentenced to 10 years. Both were charged with extortion, plunder, embezzlement and theft.

“With the verdicts against Tojibaeva and others, and the closure of NGOs, the verdicts against the Sunshine Coalition appear aimed at silencing entirely Uzbekistan’s opposition.”

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