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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uzbek Sacrifices Freedom and Teeth

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- The 51-year-old former carpenter had lots on his mind. For one, his teeth hurt -- the few the Uzbek police hadn't knocked out. He should really be at the dentist's office, he acknowledged.

For another, Ismail Adilov had learned that very morning that he was on a list at the police department of "politicals" who need special permission to leave the country. His hopes of flying to New York next week, where Adilov is to be honored as one of the world's leading activists by Human Rights Watch, are fading fast.

And then there were his other aches and pains. He was only let out of jail in July, after two miserable years of cramped cells, brackish drinking water and frequent torture sessions. Those sessions included a daily dose of being forced to sing patriotic Uzbek songs and to compose poems to President Islam Karimov, and then getting beaten savagely for lapses of artistic inspiration. Since his release from jail, he has spent most of his time in the hospital.

But Monday morning he convinced his reluctant doctors to release him for the day: Four more young men were to be tried for belonging to a non-state Muslim organization -- a crime in Uzbekistan -- and Adilov was determined to take up his regular lonely post as the only independent note-taker at the proceedings.

So that afternoon he stood outside the Chilunzarsky district court, a slightly-built and graying figure in a well-worn dark suit and silver-rimmed glasses. He was among a handful of people -- mostly relatives of the accused, the women in bright headscarves, but also an Australian film crew and two U.S. diplomats -- waiting for the trial to open.

When it eventually did open, the rattled judges promptly ejected the two U.S. diplomats and the journalists, and then postponed the hearing. "They don't like all this attention," Adilov explained with a grin.

International attention is focused on Uzbekistan now because it is a leading base for the American war on the Taliban. The U.S. air base outside Karshi, Uzbekistan, has a chimerical status -- no one has seen the purported 1,000 U.S. soldiers there, and the press are kept five kilometers away -- but its existence here is prompting a searching look at Uzbekistan as the new American strategic partner in the region.

There are numerous underground Muslim groups that stand in opposition to Karimov's government but advocate political change only through peaceful means. Most prominent among them is Hizb-u-Tahrir, a group that has never been involved in violence but which opposes both Western democracy and Soviet authoritarianism. Hizb-u-Tahrir would like to see Uzbekistan eventually be part of a Central Asian theocracy, a caliphate.

Uzbekistan has responded to these various nuances with all-out war on independent Islam. According to Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, where Adilov works, there are more than 7,000 people in Uzbek jails today for crimes like praying in private or possessing non-Karimov-approved literature about Islam. New York-based Human Rights Watch, the only international group with a permanent Tashkent office, agrees with that figure.

Among the victims of that war on Islam and dissent are home-grown human rights activists like Adilov. Three police officers came for him at home in the evening, in July 1999. He said they showed no arrest warrant, shoved him in a car and refused to tell his wife Mamura where they were taking him.

In the car, he says, they handcuffed him, pushed his head to the floor and began hitting him in the kidneys with the butts of their truncheons. Adilov says they also slipped Hizb-u-Tahrir leaflets into one pocket; in the other, he says, they slipped a small vial, but because that pocket had a hole in it, the vial fell unnoticed to the floor. At the police station he was frisked, and officers triumphantly produced leaflets -- and then argued over why there were no drugs to be found on him.

"I was in shock, but it was funny to watch them as they looked for the vial of narcotics," Adilov said.

Eventually, Adilov was convicted under article 159 for anti-state activities, article 244 for participation in an extremist religious group and article 161 for diversiya, in this case referring to a proposed plot of Adilov's to single-handedly blow up the Tashkent prison. He got six years.

Everyone from rights groups like Russia's Memorial to the U.S. State Department agreed with Adilov that all this was absurd that he had been set up because he was a rights activist and the regime was tired of him. Adilov's boss, Ardzinov, credits pressure brought by the U.S. State Department for Karimov's decision to amnesty him three months ago.