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Uzbekistan Pursues Suspects on Russian Soil

Moscow has carried out arrests sought by the Karimov government, signaling solidarity with a regime that has drawn allegations of abuse.

October 16, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

IVANOVO, Russia — The law has a long arm -- for the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, it can stretch more than a thousand miles beyond his country's borders.

Consider the case of the Rostex trading company, a small import-export business here whose employees, all Uzbek immigrants, were among a group that published a letter on the Internet recently criticizing the Karimov government.

Shortly before midnight on June 18, four Rostex employees and 10 others were rounded up by Russian officers and taken to the Ivanovo police station, where Uzbek security agents were waiting, reportedly armed with electric prods.

In May, the Karimov government launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrators in the town of Andijon. Human rights groups say hundreds were killed, but the government contends that fewer than 200 died and that those killed were Islamic extremists. The United States called for an international investigation into the events and barely objected when Karimov ordered Washington to close down a military base in his nation long used as a staging ground for operations in Afghanistan.

Russia's reaction has been decidedly different, as seen in Ivanovo, a textile town of half a million residents about 180 miles northeast of Moscow, where the 14 men are still being held.

A little more than a day after the detentions, legal papers from Uzbek authorities arrived, charging the 14 with conspiracy to commit terrorism, murder and the overthrow of the Karimov government.

If Russia decides to extradite the "Ivanovo Uzbeks," as they have come to be called in the media, they could face the death penalty in Uzbekistan. Human rights activists say the men's case underscores the changing geopolitics in Central Asia. Even as the U.S. has distanced itself from the former Soviet republic, Russia and China have moved in, expressing solidarity with the Karimov government.

In late September, Russian troops conducted joint maneuvers in Uzbekistan in what was billed as the largest cooperative military effort between the two nations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

"Now that Uzbekistan is mostly isolated from the rest of the world and shunned by the international community due to the events in Andijon," the Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper wrote last month, "it is Russia's support that largely enables the Uzbek regime to maintain stability."

The arrest of the Uzbeks in Ivanovo, who have not been accused of any crimes in Russia, appears to signal Moscow's willingness to back the Karimov government's crackdown on dissent.

In this case, the Rostex employees insist that they have not been engaging in terrorism plots or frequent criticism of the Uzbek government. Their lawyers said the employees, some of them devout Muslims, had set up a modest business importing Uzbek cotton products to Russia and exporting sewing machine parts to Uzbekistan.

The trouble appears to have started when Rostex's owner, Kabul Kasimkhuzhayev, traveled to Andijon, his hometown, a few days before the May 13 uprising. While he was there, militants broke into the city prison and briefly seized control of the regional administration; thousands of peaceful civilian demonstrators took to the streets. The government launched a bloody reprisal, ending the uprising two days later and leaving hundreds dead, rights groups say. The government says 187 people died, mostly "terrorists and extremists."

After Andijon, an Uzbek workers' rights group launched by Kasimkhuzhayev and Rostex manager Khatam Khadzhimatov published a statement on the Internet criticizing the Karimov government.

Recently, the Uzbek government offered testimony from a witness that appeared to link Ivanovo to the alleged terrorism conspiracy. According to the statement, the Islamic Movement of Turkestan had transferred $200,000 through the Russian cities of Ivanovo and Omsk to finance the Andijon uprising.

But lawyers for the Ivanovo detainees are skeptical. Nearly all the testimony obtained in the trial underway in Uzbekistan of 15 alleged extremists accused of leading the Andijon uprising has been questioned by human rights observers, who say the defendants appear to be confessing under torture.

All 15 of the accused pleaded "fully guilty" on the first day of the trial to attempting to set up an Islamic caliphate in eastern Uzbekistan, being coached by "foreign journalists" and training at camps in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. They admitted to firing on civilians and begged the forgiveness of the Uzbek people.

In Ivanovo, defense lawyers acknowledge that it cannot automatically be ruled out that Uzbeks here were aiding Islamic militants in Andijon. But if they were, the attorneys argue, why has the Russian government not produced a single piece of evidence?

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