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Uzbekistan seizes activist near border

The human rights worker faces charges, including smuggling, that are described as 'politically motivated.'

January 30, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A prominent human rights activist in Uzbekistan who worked part time as a translator for New York-based Human Rights Watch has been detained after fleeing her homeland and then attempting to return, her lawyer said Monday.

Umida Niyazova, 32, an activist with Veritas, an unregistered Uzbek human rights group, was detained near Uzbekistan's border with Kyrgyzstan on Jan. 22, according to Human Rights Watch. Niyazova previously worked with Washington-based Freedom House, and she also has ties to Russian human rights activists in Moscow.

She faces charges of illegal border crossing, which is punishable by a fine or up to 10 years' imprisonment, and smuggling of extremist literature, punishable by five to 10 years' imprisonment, Human Rights Watch said, describing the charges as "politically motivated."

Niyazova had been briefly detained and questioned on Dec. 21 after arriving at the airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, on a flight from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, according to Andrea Berg, director of the Tashkent office of Human Rights Watch. Her laptop computer and passport were confiscated at that time, and Niyazova was told the computer was being sent for "expert analysis," Berg said.

Berg said she believed Niyazova had been in the Kyrgyz capital for a seminar put on by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which conducts election monitoring in many former Soviet states. Niyazova is the single mother of a 2-year-old son, Berg said.

Authorities claim that "there are anti-constitutional documents or documents that threaten the government on her laptop," Berg said. "This can mean anything."

Uzbekistan bans access to many websites that carry human rights reports about the country, including that of Human Rights Watch, so "basically whatever you copy from a website and have on your laptop is already a sensitive document," she said.

Abror Yusupov, Niyazova's lawyer, said in a telephone interview from Tashkent that after the Dec. 21 airport incident, during which authorities threatened criminal charges against her, his client was frightened and illegally crossed into Kyrgyzstan for her own safety.

"Then the authorities told me that the criminal charges against her were dropped, and at the customs office of Tashkent airport they showed me a copy of an expert's conclusion that there were no extremist or other unlawful materials in her computer," Yusupov said. "They said that the case was closed and that she could come to Tashkent airport customs office on Jan. 22 and collect her passport and the notebook."

Yusupov telephoned Niyazova with the good news, he said.

"She was very happy that things had worked out her way," he said. "She decided to cross the border back into Uzbekistan the way she went, that is, illegally, since she didn't have her passport with her." The border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is porous, and border crossings without documents are common.

Niyazova, however, was arrested immediately after crossing the border, Yusupov said.

"In my presence she acknowledged her guilt on the first charge [of illegal border crossing] and denied the smuggling charge," Yusupov said. "I am afraid the way things are heading she may get a prison term of five to eight years now. Technically she violated the law when she crossed the border illegally."

A human rights website, uznews.net, reported Sunday that one of its correspondents had been present at a prosecutor's office with Niyazova and Yusupov, and that she had accused her lawyer of deceiving her. Yusupov denied that he knew she would be arrested.

"The information that appeared on some websites to the effect that I lured her back into Uzbekistan only to be arrested is absolutely false," he said. "I wouldn't be still representing her as a lawyer if that had been the case.... I am sorry to say, but now I am inclined to think that the customs investigators at the airport lied to me when they said that the case was closed."

A spokeswoman for Uzbekistan's General Prosecutor's office said she was not aware of Niyazova's case. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent referred questions to the State Department.

Surat Ikramov, head of the Uzbekistan Independent Human Rights Activists Group, said he regretted that Niyazova had crossed into Kyrgyzstan without her passport.

"It is a pity that Umida handed the authorities a chance to arrest her for breaking the law," he said. "I don't know why she did that. She is such an honest, decent and reasonable person. I can understand it when she secretly fled the country fearing persecution, but to try and cross the border back in a similar fashion was like testing your luck to the utmost."

When authorities told her lawyer that the charges had been dropped, "they must have known by that time that she was outside the country and they chose this misinformation tactic to lure her back," Ikramov said.

Ikramov said Niyazova lived alone with her son. "I know that her mother is taking care of Umida's son in her absence," he said.

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david.holley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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