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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rights Activist Hit With New Charges

Uzbek authorities have brought new charges against a human rights activist, linking her to an Islamic religious group that was behind an uprising in May 2005, her defense lawyer said Tuesday.

Umida Niyazova, who was arrested last week on charges of illegal border crossing and smuggling, now faces charges of propagating radical Islam, public defender Abdurakhmon Tashanov said.

Niyazova, 32, was briefly detained last month, her laptop computer and papers were confiscated and passport seized. She fled to Kyrgyzstan, but tried to return after being told by her lawyer that the criminal investigation against her had been closed.

Investigators contend that documents found in Niyazova's laptop link her to Akramiya, the Islamic group involved in an uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, he said. Criminal prosecution of 23 of the group's leaders helped spark the uprising, which was put down by government troops.

Human rights groups and witnesses say more than 700 mostly unarmed protesters were killed in Andijan. Uzbek authorities say fewer than 200 died and blamed Islamic radicals for fomenting the unrest.

The independent human rights web site Uznews.net reported Tuesday that a Human Rights Watch report and witness accounts of the government's bloody suppression of the revolt were among the documents found on the laptop.

Niyazova, an activist with Veritas, an unregistered Uzbek human rights group, has been affiliated with the U.S.-based organizations Human Rights Watch and Internews Network, among others. She faces a fine or up to 10 years in prison on the illegal border crossing charge and five to 10 years on the charge of smuggling extremist literature, Human Rights Watch said, describing the charges as "politically motivated."

Niyazova was initially briefly detained and questioned Dec. 21 after arriving at the airport in Tashkent on a flight from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, said Andrea Berg, director of the Tashkent office of Human Rights Watch. Her laptop computer and passport were confiscated, 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 republics. Niyazova is a single mother with a 2-year-old son, Berg said.

Authorities initially claimed that "there are anti-constitutional documents or documents that threaten the government on her laptop," Berg said.

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

Abror Yusupov, another lawyer representing Niyazova, 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."

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 web sites 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 Prosecutor General's Office said she was not aware of Niyazova's case.

The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent referred questions to the U.S. State Department.

(LAT, AP)