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|In Uzbekistan, Whatever It Takes|
|12/19/01 at 10:44:08|
|In Uzbekistan, Whatever It Takes|
One by one, the defendants file into the large steel cage. There are 10 of them, young men in their mid-20's. Some wear jeans and sweatshirts -- and defiant expressions. Others appear bruised and frightened.
Soldiers in desert camouflage fatigues and black jackboots ring the cage, which runs along one wall of the Akmal Ikramov District Court. Outside, sheep graze next to Tashkent Police Station No. 2, and anxious relatives mill around a fountain, waiting for the courthouse to open its doors.
Today is the last day of hearings, and the verdicts will be handed down. The mothers, grandmothers, sisters and wives of the accused murmur prayers and recite verses from the Koran, though many of them know that praying won't save their sons and husbands.
Judge Rustamov Nizam is presiding, and in these parts of Central Asia he has a reputation for dispensing swift justice. He sits at a raised plastic-laminate table, beneath the blue, white and green seal of Uzbekistan with its crescent and stars, looking supremely self-confident -- as if he has the power over life and death, which he does.
''Silence,'' he commands, and a hush falls over the courtroom. This afternoon, the 10 defendants will get their only chance to say their piece, to beg the court's forgiveness and to ask for clemency -- not that it's likely to be forthcoming. They all stand accused under Article 159 of the criminal code of undermining the constitution. But their real crime is religious fanaticism, of wanting an Islamic state. It's a serious offense in this former Soviet cotton colony, where the government of the onetime Communist Party boss, Islam Karimov, has ruled with an iron fist since the days when the Red Army used Uzbek bases to occupy neighboring Afghanistan. Today, thanks to a three-year crackdown following a terror attack, leaders of the Islamic opposition are all either in jail or in exile.
In many respects, President Karimov is no different from the region's other strongmen, whose abysmal human rights records and bizarre notions of democracy appear to have been inspired more by Genghis Khan than by George Washington. But Uzbekistan is America's newest ally in the war against terror, and any rumblings in the State Department over Karimov's heavy-handed ways have been silenced since the Uzbek leader allowed American troops to use his desert nation as a beachhead for their assault on Afghanistan. The trade-off -- for a regime that was frequently snubbed by the Clinton administration -- is political legitimacy. In exchange for that precious commodity, Karimov granted access to a key air base in Khanabad, a few hundred miles north of the Afghan border, where more than 1,000 special light infantry rangers were immediately deployed. Until last week, his generosity had not extended to the ''Bridge of Friendship,'' the main link with Afghanistan, which had remained closed to all traffic -- including essential food shipments.
But Uzbekistan, meanwhile, is free to continue its decadelong policy of persecuting anyone perceived as a threat to Karimov's authority. It just so happens that with all political dissent crushed, the targets of the current crackdown are about the only people left in the country who don't see eye to eye with the president: militant Muslims. That, of course, makes it a whole lot easier for Washington to look the other way.
''The accused Aliev will rise,'' Judge Nizam says. Mohamed Aliev stands in the steel cage. He is a slim young man, with shorn dark hair and a blue Adidas T-shirt. ''We are charged because of our beliefs,'' he begins. ''Because we are part of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. But we are not against the constitutional order.''
The judge interrupts him impatiently: ''You are confessing guilt but saying you're not guilty.'' Aliev doesn't know it, because like most of the other defendants he is not represented by legal counsel, but simply admitting membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir is tantamount to treason in Uzbekistan, as the fundamentalist Islamic movement seeks to replace the secular state with the Caliphate, or religious rule.
''I demand that medical experts examine us to prove that we were beaten and tortured,'' says another defendant, Sayeed Ahbat, when it is his turn to address the court. Nizam cuts him off brusquely. ''If he was beaten, then he needs to write a statement of complaint -- I will not allow you to speak anymore,'' Nizam says, raising a pudgy hand. ''Next.''
Mohamed Sharatin rises unsteadily to make his statement. He is tall, handsome and athletically built. Tears stream down his broad face, which is purple and red in parts and badly swollen. ''I beg forgiveness,'' he begins, to which the judge nods approvingly. ''I confess to reading Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature.'' Sharatin's crime was to be caught in possession of a leaflet from the organization, which labels Bush a ''war criminal'' and calls on the faithful to rise up against the great ''Satan'' that is America. ''But I was simply curious and did not force anyone else to read it.''
Sharatin's curiosity could cost him 19 years in Jaslyk, the notorious penal colony opened two years ago in the salt beds and sand flats south of the shrunken Aral Sea. Specifically constructed to house the growing influx of religious prisoners, the new desert gulag has developed such a reputation for torture and tuberculosis that dissidents say the only way out of Jaslyk is in a body bag -- if the pretrial interrogation, or a firing squad, doesn't kill you first.
Uzbekistan's jails aren't confined to suspected religious fanatics. In 1995, for instance, when one of the country's former ambassadors to Washington fell out of favor with Karimov, his pregnant niece was hauled in on smuggling charges. Rather than release her on bail pending trial, as Uzbek law requires for expectant mothers, authorities aborted the fetus in a prison hospital.
The rest of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir defendants make their statements. Finally, a defense attorney, Rustam Rakhmatulaev, addresses the court. He speaks for barely two minutes, since the outcome of most trials here is a foregone conclusion. ''All the defendants have requested forgiveness under interrogation,'' he begins. ''None of them said anything bad about the president,'' he adds hopefully. Insulting Karimov, whose photograph hangs in the courthouse, as it does in hotel lobbies, storefronts and schools, and whose specter seems to hover everywhere in Uzbekistan like an unseen presence, is punishable by up to five years in prison.
''I request that the court be lenient,'' Rakhmatulaev says, concluding his summation. Uzbekistan's courts, however, are not inclined to mercy; not, at least, in instances in which religion threatens to impinge on affairs of state. Since the government declared its war on militant Islam in 1998, some 7,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch, have been imprisoned. Many of those were tortured and, in some cases, even killed for their religious beliefs. The campaign had drawn worldwide criticism for its arbitrariness and brutality; that is, until Sept. 11 changed the way most Americans look at the world.
And as Nizam calls for a recess before handing out a passel of 19-year sentences, it suddenly dawns on the relatives of the accused that they may not be seeing their sons or husbands for a long, long time. The families press forward, crying out, trying to reach through the steel bars for one last hug. The soldiers spring into action, linking arms and forming a human chain between the defendants and their loved ones. Slowly they push the wailing mothers, sisters and wives out of the courtroom.
Outside, Savara Umarova stands stunned by the fountain. ''My brother will be an old man when he gets out,'' she says, her voice shaky and barely audible. ''He's not a terrorist. He's just a believer.''
Source: New York Times
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