Acacia Shields Comments On The Tashkent Terrorism Trial And Uzbekistans Ongoing Crackdown Against Islam
On Friday, November 17, a Tashkent court handed out death sentences in abstenia to the two leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Takhir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani. Ten other defendants -- including Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of the Erk opposition party -- received 12- to 20-year prison terms. The trial was part of an ongoing crackdown on unsanctioned Islamic religious activity in Uzbekistan. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight Archives]. Some observers say the crackdown has unleashed a vicious cycle -- in which repression against Islamic believers fuels the IMU insurgency, prompting increased government harassment of religious activity. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight Archives]. EurasiaNet posed questions about the trial and its aftermath to Acacia Shields, who heads the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent. The text of the interview follows:
EurasiaNet: What is your evaluation of how the government conducted the trial? Did the defendants who were present at the trial have an adequate legal defense?
Shields: That the Uzbek government held this trial at all was a violation of international standards. Trials in absentia are prohibited, as they do not give the defendant an opportunity to be present at his own hearing and they deprive a person of his right to launch a proper defense. Even beyond this question, however, the state conducted the trial poorly, with hardly a nod to proper trial procedure. In the first place, contrary to public announcements, the trial was closed to local activists, relatives of the defendants, and the general public. Human Rights Watch and other international observers were particularly disappointed to see that government failed once again to provide any material evidence of the defendants' guilt, particularly crucial in a case that carried the death penalty. Only half of one day was dedicated to the defense of all 12 men, provided by state-appointed lawyers representing those present and those outside the country. International observers dismissed the defense as weak and noted that not one witness was called on the side of those on trial.
EurasiaNet: Is there any significance to the fact that 10 of the defendants got prison terms
of 12-20 years, instead of receiving a death sentence?
Shields: The prosecution's request for the death penalty for 10 of the 12 defendants, including opposition politician Muhammad Solih, raised considerable attention to, and concern about, the case within the international community. It would certainly be significant if, as it seems, the anticipated international outcry regarding the verdict was instrumental in the final outcome, namely the decision to hand down fewer death sentences. Courts in Uzbekistan normally stick very close to the wishes of the prosecution. However, there are other death penalty cases currently pending on similar charges and one must take all such cases into account, not only this high profile matter, before determining that a real change in policy has taken place.
EurasiaNet: Is there any significance as to the timing of this trial? Could it impact Uzbek efforts to find common ground with the Taliban?
Shields: We view the timing to be significant in another way. This trial came right on the heels of a US decision to name the IMU as an international terrorist organization. There is reason to fear that this US move was interpreted by the government of Uzbekistan as a "green light" to go ahead with this kind of trial.
EurasiaNet: How will the trial, and the convictions, influence the ongoing crackdown in Uzbekistan against unsanctioned Islamic activity? Do you expect the crackdown to intensify?
Shields: The effect of the trial on the crackdown will depend on the international response it generates. The international community needs to hold a firm line, signaling that such political show trials run contrary to Uzbekistan's international agreements, and belie promises of reform.
Unfortunately, with or without this trial, we see the crackdown continuing, with ongoing arrests of independent Muslims and their family members, and dozens of group trials taking place right now. The government shows no sign of reigning in its brutal police force, or stopping illegal arrests. In this climate of impunity, the international community has an obligation to speak with a loud and unified voice of the need for Uzbekistan to comply with human rights standards and observe rule of law. Muted responses and quiet diplomacy have not proved effective in this regard, and we look to the US and countries of the European Union in particular to use the leverage at their disposal to bring Uzbekistan into compliance with human rights.
EurasiaNet: Do you have any information about the reaction to the verdict in the Ferghana Valley?
Shields: At this time, we do not have information regarding the reaction in Ferghana Valley; however, we already see in Tashkent that many view the process with skepticism, regarding it as just another propaganda ploy. Many are surprised and even indignant about the spectacle of a trial without the majority of the defendants and see the trial as a political maneuver rather than the proper functioning of the judicial system. That said, disillusionment with the judicial system was already running high before this latest trial. The near-universality of abuse in their cases, including the denial of presumption of innocence, denial of legal counsel, physical mistreatment and torture by police, and serious corruption throughout the hierarchy, have caused those who have any contact with investigators, prosecutors, and judges to lose faith in the system.
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