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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uzbeks Feel Long Arm of Law

IVANOVO -- The law has a long arm -- for the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, it can stretch more than 1,500 kilometers beyond his country's borders.

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

After numerous reports of torture and a brutal crackdown that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilian demonstrators in the town of Andijan in May, human rights organizations around the world have condemned the Karimov government. The United States called for an international investigation and barely objected this summer when Karimov ordered it to close down a military base long used as a staging ground for operations in Afghanistan.

Russia's reaction has been different, especially in this textile town of half a million residents 290 kilometers east of Moscow. Here, shortly before midnight on June 18, four Rostex employees and 10 others were rounded up by Russian officers and taken to a police station where Uzbek security agents were waiting, reportedly armed with electric prods.

A little more than a day later, legal papers arrived from Uzbekistan charging the men with conspiracy to commit terrorism, murder and the overthrow of the government of their home country.

If Russia decides to extradite the "Ivanovo Uzbeks," as they have come to be called in the media, they could face the death penalty.

Human rights activists say the men have become Exhibit A in the changing geopolitical map of Central Asia. Even as the United States has distanced itself from Uzbekistan, Russia and China have moved in, expressing solidarity with the Karimov regime.

Late last month, Russian troops conducted joint maneuvers in Uzbekistan in what was billed as the largest Russian-Uzbek cooperative military effort 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 Andijan," Nezavisimaya Gazeta 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 regime's crackdown on dissent.

In this case, the employees of Rostex insist they were neither engaging in terrorist plots nor frequently criticizing 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 spare parts for sewing machines back to Uzbekistan.

The trouble appears to have started when Rostex's owner, Kabul Kasimkhuzhayev, traveled to Andijan, his hometown, a few days before the May 13 uprising. While he was there, armed militants broke into the prison and briefly occupied the regional administration while thousands of peaceful civilian demonstrators took to the streets. Bloody reprisals by the government left hundreds dead and ended the uprising two days later.

After Andijan, an Uzbek workers' rights group set up by Kasimkhuzhayev and Rostex manager Khatam Khadzhimatov published a statement on the Internet critical of the Karimov government. Recently, the Uzbek government offered testimony from a witness that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had transferred $200,000 through the Russian cities of Ivanovo and Omsk to help finance the Andijan uprising. The testimony appears to be one of the links connecting Ivanovo to the terrorism conspiracy.

But defense lawyers for the Ivanovo detainees are skeptical. First, nearly all the testimony taken in the trial under way in Uzbekistan of 15 alleged extremists accused of leading the Andijan uprising has been greeted with skepticism by human rights observers, who say the defendants appear to be confessing under torture.

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

Here in Ivanovo, defense lawyers admit it cannot be ruled out that local Uzbeks were aiding Islamic militants in Andijan. But if they were, they argue, why has the Russian government produced not a single piece of evidence?

"They've all been here in Ivanovo for years. If they had been doing anything wrong, then naturally the proof could have been gathered here. But there is simply no evidence," said lawyer Irina Sokolova, commissioned by the human rights organization Memorial.

"To speak about criminal intentions and actions, we need to have facts, minimal facts," Memorial investigator Vitaly Ponomaryov said. "And the situation in which 14 people get declared on the 'wanted' list by Tashkent as soon as their names are faxed from Russia, it reeks of some kind of falsification."

Khadzhimatov's wife, Lutfia, a native of Russia, said her husband acquired Russian citizenship in 2000. His main aim, she said, was to build up the new business enough to support his family. She said her husband, although a devout Muslim, did not support the political aims of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic militant organization linked to the Islamic Movement and also blamed by the Uzbeks for supporting the Andijan uprising.

"He was never politically involved. He never supported any parties," she said. "He said if you live in a state where the government allows you to pray, and go to the mosque, and fast during Ramadan, why should you go against such a state?"

Even if the Russian courts eventually decide there is no basis for extraditing the men to Uzbekistan, they cannot necessarily breathe freely. Human rights officials have documented cases in the past two years in which Uzbek nationals in Russia protected from extradition or acquitted by the court system were later kidnapped and disappeared.