TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- By the time Sozhida Rokhimova learned that police had come to take away her son, there was little she could do. The news came in a nerve-wracking phone call hours after his arrest, when her 25-year-old son, Zokhid, explained over a barely audible connection that he had been arrested in their home sometime before midnight, while she was asleep.
Through the haze of telephone static, Zokhid tried to comfort his mother. He told her that local authorities would hold him for no more than 15 days. However, with another son already imprisoned because of his religious beliefs, she quickly understood it could be longer. On November 8, Zokhid received a nearly 15-year prison term.
In Uzbekistan, trials of Islamic believers are carried out with militaristic intensity. Authorities speak of a need to crush Islamic radicals intent on undermining the state's secular principles and territorial integrity. But human rights observers say the so-called crackdown, administered by one of Washington's new allies in Central Asia, is nothing more than an effort to control all forms of religious expression.
Zohkid Rokhimov's trial is a typical example of how many believers are now being treated in Uzbekistan as dangerous radicals. He was tried along with nine other young men in a shabby courthouse on the outskirts of Uzbekistan's sprawling capital, Tashkent. The accused sat behind the thick bars of a large courtroom cage as a judge sentenced them to prison terms ranging from nine to 17 years. All 10 men were from the same Tashkent neighborhood, and all were convicted for belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical movement that calls for the non-violent establishment of a broad Islamic state in Central Asia.
Security was tight during the trial. Eight stone-faced soldiers dressed in combat fatigues and holding batons surveyed the courtroom as the judge spoke. One soldier stood directly before the prisoners, never taking his hand from the pistol at his side.
Human Rights advocates say Rokhimov's trial, and the many others like it, demonstrates that Uzbekistan's authoritarian leadership has not softened its stance on religious and political persecution since the September 11 terrorist strikes. In the weeks since then, the United States and Uzbekistan have become close strategic partners in the anti-terrorism campaign.
"The trial of these 10 men is an example of the ongoing campaign here against independent Muslims," said Matilda Bogner, a Human Rights Watch representative in Uzbekistan. "It was a campaign that was going on before the Sept. 11 attacks, and it is continuing afterwards."
For local and foreign civil liberties groups, the November 8 case fuels concern that the geopolitical fallout from September 11 is providing Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government with leverage to silence his critics on Uzbekistan's human rights record. The United States had been one of Uzbekistan's strongest critics. But as military cooperation increased during October, official disapproval in Washington over Uzbek human rights violations became muted.
In February, the US State Department reported that the Uzbek government's "poor human rights record worsened," primarily due to the iron-fisted assault on independent political and religious expression. The crackdown began in 1999, after several bombs exploded in Tashkent, as part of what the government asserts was an assassination attempt against Karimov.
In October, the State Department seemed to soften its view. In an annual report on international religious freedom, the State Department chose not designate Uzbekistan as one of the "Countries of Particular Concern."
Relatives of the defendants sentenced November 8 describe Uzbek justice as arbitrary and harsh. "How can a trial for 10 men last for only nine days?" asked an incredulous Qumree Karimova, mother of Saidakbarkhon Murtazakhodzhaev, 25, who received a 10-year sentence. Karimova portrayed her son was a moderate believer who harbored no radical intentions.
The government disagreed. According to the court, Murtazakhodzhaev, who designs furniture for a living, was a leader of a Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell. As with the other nine defendants, the primary charge leveled against him was involvement in anti-constitutional activities.
On May 30, the day he was arrested, two men came to Murtazakhodzhaev's one-story house, located on a leafy Tashkent back street. According to his mother, they introduced themselves as Omar Mukhamadiev and Siddiq Oripov. No one in the family had ever seen them before, she said. They thought the two were clients interested in buying furniture.
Instead, the three men retired to a sitting room, where they discussed Islam and exchanged Hizb-ut-Tahrir books and leaflets. Near lunchtime, the conversation slackened and one of the men took a nap. At 1:30 pm, there was a knock at the door. It was the police. Officers pushed their way into the house, and, finding the prohibited literature, they arrested the three men immediately.
"They weren't common criminals," said Murtazakhodzhaev's defense lawyer, referring to the three men. "They were judged for thinking the wrong things."
Uzbekistan has jailed over 7,000 people for holding views not shared by the government, according to the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan. By law, Uzbeks who choose to pray must attend state-approved mosques, and under a variety of circumstances, religious tracts cannot be legally exchanged. Freedom of association here is rigorously supervised: groups that are not approved by the state are not permitted to convene.
When gathering evidence on accused agitators becomes difficult, human rights observers say, state prosecutors often call upon the simple signs of religious devotion as proof, such as the place a person chooses to pray, what he reads or with whom he associates.
"My son only read the Koran -- that's all he did," said Rokhimov's mother, as she waited for more than four hours before the November 8 sentencing. "They call him a terrorist. It's not right. He is a very kind man."
During the trial, most of the accused admitted to being members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, some for as long as several years, and begged for forgiveness.
"They were all saying: 'We're not against the constitution; we're not against the regime; we just want to pray and follow the path of god,'" said Bogner, the Human Rights Watch monitor. "They were saying they wanted to be able to hold their own opinions on the way people should act morally in the world."
Some of the defendants suggested in their final statements that they had been coerced to confess to their crimes. "When we were arrested, we were threatened and psychologically abused, beaten and tortured," one of the defendants said.
However, the presiding judge, Nizom Rustamov, would have none of it. "If you say you are being beaten, then write a statement about it," he responded. "I won't allow you to speak any further."
"He has a reputation for harshness," said one local human rights advocate. Bogner added: "Rustamov is known to have sentenced someone to the death penalty for possessing fertilizer at home, because fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in the making of explosives."
Still, many parents are still recovering from the shock of the verdicts. When Gairam Muminov, 57, heard that his son, Abdulvali, would be jailed for the next 10 years, he put his two hands over his face and then pulled them slowly away to reveal an expression utterly blank from desperation.