Uzbekistan: Military Court Rejects Oxus Engineer's Appeal
An Uzbek military court rejected an appeal for release from prison of the chief engineer of the British company Oxus Gold, according to a company press release dated October 31.
On October 6, the appeal was heard of Said Ashurov, a Tajik national and the chief metallurgist at the Amantaytau Goldfields (AGF), and his 12-year jail sentence on espionage charges under Art. 160 of the Uzbek Criminal Code was upheld. AGF is a joint mining venture in which Oxus owns a 50 percent state.
Ashurov's health has deteriorated in detention, as he suffers from long-standing hepatitis. Ashurov's defense attorneys say the charges are unfounded, as the information he possessed when stopped at the border was either in the public domain or available in the mining community.
Robert Amsterdam, counsel to Oxus gold, said in the statement:
The court’s decision to uphold the guilty verdict is further evidence of the lack of a functioning legal system in Uzbekistan. The courts are a tool in the hands of a corrupt leadership that shows nothing but contempt for foreign investors, not to speak of its own citizens. The prosecution never had a shred of evidence to support their case. The Uzbek authorities should take careful note of the international reaction to the death of Sergey Magnitsky in Russia. If Said Ashurov’s life is put in danger, Uzbek officials will be held accountable by western governments.
Let's hope it doesn't come to that -- because western governments may not be as responsive as hoped. The case of Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer for Hermitage Capital Management who died from mistreatment in custody in 2010, has drawn a lot of attention from the Russian and Western press. Even President Dmitry Medvedev said he would introduce legislative changes to prevent such tragedies -- still to be enforced. The US Congress introduced travel sanctions on Russia officials said to be responsible for Magnitsky's death -- leading to tit-for-tat sanctions by the Kremlin against American officials said to be responsible for torture at Guantanamo. The British government also imposed visa sanctions on Russian officials related to the Magnitsky case, and the EU is mulling European-wide sanctions. The Canadian Parliament also recently introduced similar legislation.
All of these actions took considerable amount of lobbying, but the mix of circumstances regrettably doesn't obtain for Uzbekistan given the current warming relations between Tashkent and the EU and US. It's hard to get press coverage of prisoners inside of Uzbekistan and even from visiting Western correspondents or human rights activists who face either obstructions or reticence from sources fearing retaliation. The UK and the EU have had longer experience dealing directly with the Kremlin, and have evolved a system of compartmentalizing some issues even as they cooperate on others. The UK has also faced an ongoing and escalating dispute with Russia over Russian intelligence agents operating on British soil and seems more disposed to challenging Moscow than Tashkent.
The trajectory is different now with Tashkent, as both the EU and US have warmed to dictator Islam Karimov for the sake of cooperation on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to supply NATO's troops in Afghanistan. Last December, Prince Michael of Kent led the largest business delegation to Tashkent in the history of UK-Uzbek bilateral relations.
Foreign investment in general in Uzbekistan has increased in the last year, according to the Uzbek government, and in the period January – September 2010, UK-Uzbek trade was $193 million. The figures for 2011 don't seem readily available, and there are inherent problems in investing in businesses controlled by an authoritarian regime. It's not clear how it may go.
Recently, there have been some setbacks -- the British press secretary was sentenced to a fine merely for meeting with Uzbek human rights activists.
Given the bad experiences of a number of EU companies in Uzbekistan -- and the seizure of Oxus Gold's assets is one of them -- we may see more protests.
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