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Dissonant Songs

Two men have been sentenced to a combined 11 years in prison in a closed trial that suggests that listening to protest songs is now, de facto, illegal in Uzbekistan. by Anvar Mahkamov 16 April 2006 BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan | Every week or so seems to bring new sentences on Uzbeks opposed to the government. In late February and early March, the headline cases involved, two prominent figures of the Sunshine Uzbekistan coalition – its leader, Sanjar Umarov, and a key party organizer, Nodira Khidoyatova. In March, the trials of alleged Muslim radicals gained most publicity, with long sentences passed down on eight Uzbeks alleged to have propagated Wahhabism, the fundamentalist form of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia. And last week what attention Uzbekistan received was paid to Sanjar Umarov, a jailed leader of the opposition. He had his sentence reduced – but his distant, tearful, disoriented appearance in court suggested to human rights observers that he, like others, had been forcibly been given psychotropic drugs.

But beyond these trials are other cases that have passed almost entirely unnoticed. One has just ended in the southwestern city of Bukhara, with a seven-year term for one, Jamal Kutliev, and a four-year sentence for the second of the defendants, Khazrat Akhmedov.

Little was known about the case, which ended in early April, because it is being held behind closed doors, the authorities refused to divulge any information, and those close to the defendants were fearful about surveillance. But the experience of several hundred Uzbeks sentenced in politically connected cases over the past year suggested just one outcome: long jail terms.

CLAMPING DOWN ON PROTEST SONGS …

Officially, most of those arrested this past year have been accused of being radical Islamists involved in an armed uprising in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005, a perception of events in Andijan contested by witnesses. Human rights defenders believe their main crime is to think differently from the official line.

Kutliev and Akhmedov, the two just convicted in Bukhara, appear to have shown their different outlook by playing protest songs in which Dadakhon Khasanov sings about the bloody crackdown at Andijan by special units despatched by Islam Karimov. No ban on listening to political music features in the Uzbek criminal code; that would contravene both the constitution (which guarantees the right to "receive, listen and spread information freely") and the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead, the official charges faced by Kutliev and Akhmedov – both members of the banned opposition party Erk (Freedom) – include "urging the population to insubordination and to revolt."

A separate report from 12 April says that Khasanov was arrested in Tashkent. Criminal proceedings are said to be underway.

Associates of Kutliev, a 59-year-old former head of a pediatric hospital in Guzhduvan, believe an informer claimed to the police that he was listening to and disseminating the songs. Kutliev appears to have recorded eye-witness accounts of events in Andijan carried by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The broadcaster, which is funded by the U.S. government, was effectively expelled from the country in December 2005 when its license was not renewed.

Akhmedov, a 70-year-old pensioner, a former teacher and a member of the Erk movement, was arrested on 9 November by 25 armed police. Witnesses believe the police found in his home a cassette of Khasanov's songs.

Friends say that he was placed in solitary confinement and, under psychological pressure, was forced to sign a prepared confession.

… AND OPPOSITION MOVEMENTS

The trial sets a precedent. According to a Bukhara human rights activist, Kutliev and Akhmedov were just two of the ordinary Uzbeks who happened to listen to those songs. Copies of Khasanov's songs have spread throughout the country. This trial therefore gives many Uzbeks extra reason to fear.

More generally, the trial fits the pattern of a broader government campaign to dismantle the networks of opposition activists.

The jailing of Kutliev and Akhmedov would remove two men who have been very active members of Erk in Bukhara since 1990. The head of the Bukhara branch of Erk, Nasurullo Saiidov, has been a major source of the information in this article. Saiidov now lives in Kyrgyzstan.

Erk has been banned since 1994. That year also saw Saiidov arrested for alleged possession of illegal weapons. All members of Erk have since then operated underground. However, in 2001, ahead of elections to the lower and upper houses of parliament, the party's activists increased their activities.

Erk's leadership has since openly called for a revolution against Karimov's repressive regime – but a peaceful revolution, as in Georgia, Ukraine, and subsequently Kyrgyzstan.
Anvar Mahkamov is the pseudonym of a journalist from Andijan, Uzbekistan.
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