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Uzbekistan Clamps Down on Political Opposition

A court in Uzbekistan has sentenced the leader of the country's main opposition movement - Sanjar Umarov - to nearly 11 years in prison for alleged economic crimes. His lawyer says Umarov will appeal the sentence, which critics say is politically motivated.

After a month-long, closed-door trial, presiding judge Zokirjon Isayev pronounced Sanjar Umarov guilty and sentenced him to more than ten years in prison.

Isayev told the court in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, that the leader of Uzbekistan's main opposition Sunshine Coalition was guilty of heading an organized criminal group and creating several off-shore companies with the express purpose of committing corruption and fraud. Umarov denies the charges, and his supporters say he is the victim of a Soviet-style show trial.

Allison Gill is the Director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch (HRW). She says the only thing Umarov is guilty of is speaking his mind about the government's abuse of force in putting down last May's uprising in Andijan.

"The [Uzbek] government has been very, very harsh on its critics," said Gill. "Its cracked down on human rights defenders and opposition figures. Just last week, Nodira Khidayatova [Sunshine's coordinator] was also sentenced. Sanjar Umarov is now sentenced. So, the regime is systematically silencing its critics."

Gill and other rights defenders say Uzbek troops fired on unarmed protesters in Andijan, killing as many as 700 people.

Karimov's government has said that less than 200 died in Andijan and that Islamic extremists, and not the government, were to blame. The president has also resisted high-level calls in Europe and the United States to launch an independent investigation into what rights groups say was a massacre.

Gill, who headed up the Human Rights Watch office in Tashkent until this past December, says civil society has been under constant attack in Uzbekistan since Andijan.

"The government is shutting down foreign NGO's [or charities] as well as local NGO's. It has beaten up opposition figures and human rights defenders almost on a daily basis. Just today, a court in Uzbekistan ordered Freedom House to be closed," she said. "I believe the Eurasia Foundation is also ordered to be closed."

According to Gill, the government believes the western-funded organizations have helped the political opposition come to power in several other former Soviet Republics, including in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Last year, Uzbek Authorities shut down two U.S.-funded NGO's, Internews, which works to promote free media, and IREX, an education and research group.

Gill says Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged Uzbekistan's government to protect opposition leaders rights to freedom of speech and association so that they can do their work as protected by international law.

To date, Gill says, the Uzbek government has not responded. President Karimov has characterized Andijan as a, quote, internal affair, - a position backed up by Russian President Vladimir Putin.