By Ian MacWilliam writing in BBC Online
Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court has jailed 15 men for between 14 and 20 years after they were convicted of organising unrest in the eastern town of Andijan.
Last May, a jail break in Andijan was followed by a massive anti-government demonstration. Protesters who escaped say government troops fired into the crowd, killing hundreds of people. The Uzbek authorities say only 187 people died, and that most were killed by the organisers of the unrest, who it calls Islamic insurgents.
“The court has found the accused guilty in particular of terrorism, attempts to overthrow the constitutional order, aggravated murder and the seizure of hostages,” Judge Bakhtyor Jamolov told the court on Monday.
Outside observers, however, say the trial was carefully stage-managed from the start. The defendants all confessed their guilt in the opening days of the trial in September, begging the forgiveness of the Uzbek people and President Islam Karimov.
International human rights groups and the UN have called into question the trial’s validity. They say forced confessions are often obtained by the use of threats against family members, by physical torture, or by the use of psychotropic drugs. They say these methods, widely used in the Soviet period, are still routine in Uzbekistan today. The Uzbek government denies this.
Apart from concerns about the confessions, the trial fell far short of international standards in other respects. During the month-long proceedings there was no cross-questioning by independent lawyers and little attempt to verify the truth of witnesses’ accounts. The defendant’s government-appointed lawyers made little effort to defend them.
“It was hard to believe some pressure was not put on the defendants,” said Andrea Berg, of US-based Human Rights Watch. “We think this was a show trial. The defendants and their lawyers had no chance to speak to each other in private.”
Of more than 200 witnesses called by the government, only one, a housewife from near Andijan, challenged the official account. Makhbuba Zakirova said soldiers had indeed fired at unarmed civilians in Andijan, and again as some protesters tried to escape across the border into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. The judge denounced Ms Zakirova in his summing up speech.
“Makhbuba Zakirova gave evidence that does not agree with events,” he told the court. “The court has decided she intentionally gave false evidence because she sympathises with the Akramists.”
The government uses the term “Akramists” to refer to members of a group of pious Muslims in Andijan who were prominent in the anti-government protests. But members of this ill-defined group say they are simply believers, not terrorists, and they deny any desire to overthrow the government.
There has been concern about Ms Zakirova’s security since her testimony. She remains under close government observation.
Some observers had expected the death penalty for some of the accused. Analysts speculate they may have been promised to be spared capital punishment if they co-operated. But speculation aside, Mr Karimov has said the death penalty will be abolished in Uzbekistan in 2008 – and it may be that death was judged to be too harsh, given the widespread criticism the trial has aroused.
In Andijan itself, there appears to be almost universal scepticism about the trial. People are afraid to speak openly, but in private they say the Tashkent government is persecuting normal Muslim believers.
Most say people gathered in the town centre because they were concerned about widespread government corruption and the lack of jobs. Given the international criticism and widespread domestic scepticism, the propaganda value of the Andijan trial is unclear.
Only Russia and China have come out unequivocally in support of the Uzbek government – both countries which are seeking greater influence in Central Asia. While the sentences were being pronounced in Tashkent, Mr Karimov was in Moscow receiving a warm welcome from President Vladimir Putin.
The two men signed an agreement promising much closer military co-operation and apparently opening the way for possible Russian military intervention in Uzbekistan in the event of further unrest, such as in Andijan.
“We have shown once more with whom we want to build our future,” said Mr Karimov in Moscow. “Russia is our most reliable partner and ally.”
By contrast, Brussels has issued a list of 12 top Uzbek officials who will be banned from visiting EU member states for a year. They include Interior minister Zakirjon Almatov, Defence minister Kadyr Gulyamov, and the head of the secret police, Rustam Inoyatov.
An EU statement said the visa ban, and a ban on arms sales to Uzbekistan, had been adopted because of “the excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Uzbek security forces during the Andijan events, and following refusal of the Uzbek authorities to allow an independent international inquiry”.
While this trial has come to an end, anger about Andijan is bound to continue to fester in Uzbekistan. Members of the small and beleaguered opposition say that disaffection with Mr Karimov is now widespread within the government and the security services. In Andijan, some people say cautiously they expect further unrest and possibly political change.
Historically the Uzbek people have usually been obedient to their rulers – but many analysts say growing poverty and authoritarianism are making Uzbekistan a dangerously unstable land in the heart of Central Asia.