UZBEKISTAN FACING UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS OVER TREATMENT OF POLITICAL OPPONENTS.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 224

Uzbek emigre opposition leader Muhammad Solih has been detained in Prague, pending hearings on an extradition request initiated by Uzbekistan. He is wanted on an international arrest mandate issued by Uzbekistan through the Interpol. He was arrested by Czech police on November 28 at Prague airport on arrival from Norway where he has lived since 1999, reportedly with political asylum. Solih arrived in Prague on an invitation from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to participate in some programs.

Muhammad Solih (the literary pseudonym of Salai Madaminov), 52, once a nationally known writer, is the leader of the Erk [Freedom] Democratic Party. He was the sole opponent to Islam Karimov in the 1992 presidential election. Erk’s and Solih’s program was secular, nationalist, Turkic-oriented, nonviolent and basically pro-Western. The Erk party–legally registered in 1991–was banned in 1993, and the following year Solih went into exile in Turkey, whence he continued political activities against the Uzbek authorities. When Turkey, in a gesture to Karimov, asked Solih to leave, he moved to Norway.

In November 2000, Solih was sentenced in absentia to fifteen years and six months in prison by the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan on charges of terrorism and conspiracy to assassinate state leaders and overthrow the lawful order. He was tried with eleven others, including Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leaders Tahir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, who were sentenced to death in absentia. Nine other defendants received prison terms ranging from twelve to twenty years. The charges against all of them, including Solih, were related to the February 1999 bomb attacks in Tashkent, which killed at least sixteen people and injured more than 100, and the 1999 and 2000 IMU guerrilla incursions into Uzbekistan.

The expatriate IMU had in fact assumed responsibility for most of those acts, and was added last year to the list of international terrorist organizations by the United States government. As regards Solih, however, the Tashkent trial did not produce any material evidence of involvement with IMU or terrorism. One witness in that trial–who was already then serving a prison term for his involvement in the February 1999 bomb attacks–testified that he had earlier arranged for Yuldash and Namangani a total of seventeen meetings with Solih in Turkey and elsewhere. According to this witness, the three had agreed on the short-term goal of deposing Karimov and setting up a coalition government in place of the existing system. But–according to the same testimony–they disagreed over long-term goals, because IMU’s leaders envisaged an Islamic state whereas Solih stood for secular Turkic nationalism.

That testimony may well have been obtained through coercion, as is often the case in Uzbek trials. Yet there were indications in 1998-2000 that Solih did make some contacts with IMU leaders. In 1999 he sought to use those contacts in attempting to mediate the peaceful release of hostages, seized by Islamists in Kyrgyzstan. He also shared with them the airwaves of Iranian state radio. All that gave the Uzbek authorities the opportunity to portray the IMU and Solih as components of a united opposition, blurring the great distinctions and differences between them. Amalgamating him with IMU leaders and militants in last year’s trial was a move to discredit Solih internally as a political opponent and to prepare justifications for seeking his extradition. Norway has turned down that request from Tashkent. Meanwhile, Solih’s three brothers are imprisoned in Uzbekistan on sentences ranging from ten to fifteen years on politically motivated charges.

All the major human rights organizations in the United States and Western Europe have written to the Czech government demanding Solih’s release. Czech President Vaclav Havel has announced that he is monitoring the situation, but so far has decided not to interfere with the legal procedure. Uzbekistan has forty days, from the date of the arrest, to present the charges with supporting evidence against Solih.

Meanwhile, Uzbek law enforcement authorities are preparing the trial of Yusuf Juma [Jumaev], 58, a poet and supporter since 1989 of the banned movement Birlik [Unity]. Juma was arrested six weeks ago in his native Karakul district, Buhara Region, on the basis of information supplied by some villagers to the police. The charges against him include incitement to the overthrow of the lawful order and seditious calls to Jihad. According to a letter from the prosecution to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, Juma made those calls in talking to villagers, in his written notes and in a poem titled “Jihad.”

One of Birlik’s founding leaders, Abdumannob Polat–currently the director of the Central Asian Human Rights Information Network in Washington–has released full, annotated English and Russian translations of Juma’s poem “Jihad,” from which it appears that the term is being used metaphorically, rather than as an incitement to violence. An accompanying poem denounced incompetent and brutal officials. Juma’s political reputation in Uzbekistan dates back to 1988 when a poem of his decried the economic bondage of the republic to the central government of the Soviet Union.

Uzbek authorities are currently also facing questions on two unresolved cases of death in detention: that of Shovruk Ruzimuradov, one of the leaders of Birlik and of the Human Rights Society, and that of the Uzbek writer of Uighur origin Emin Usman (CTK, November 29-December 4; Institute for War and Peace Reporting (London), no. 89, November 30; Human Rights Watch, International League for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Moscow Memorial, Central Asian Human Rights Information Network press releases, November 29-December 4; see The Monitor, November 20, 2000; September 11).

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