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One of Uzbekistan's Last Remaining Political Opposition Leaders Stands Trial

The flurry of trial activity involving members of Uzbekistan's political opposition continues, with one of the country's only remaining opposition leaders expected to return to the stand Friday. Sanjar Umarov's trial is one of at least three secret trials currently under way, following last year's Andijan massacre.

Mr. Umarov, the leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan movement and one of the few opposition leaders not to have gone into exile, stands accused of economic crimes. The charges range from embezzlement to hiding foreign currency, tax avoidance, and bribery.

Umarov, whose movement led domestic criticism of the May 13 violence in Andijan in which nearly 200 people died, has not been heard from publicly since his arrest last October.

Shortly after his arrest, his lawyer found him naked and incoherent in his cell, leading to charges he was being drugged in order to force a confession. His trial opened earlier this month but has been closed to the public, despite pressure from rights groups.

Umarov's supporters insist there is no basis for the charges against him. They say his case amounts to nothing more than a Soviet-style political show trial, aimed at silencing the last remnants of Uzbekistan's political opposition.

Central Asia analyst Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center says the trials look likely to deliver the final death knell to public dissent in Uzbekistan.

"I think that this trial may be considered perhaps as a last strike against [the] opposition," said Malashenko. "So, I think that after this trial practically the [opposition] political field in Uzbekistan will not exist anymore. And after this trial, maybe we can consider the regime in Uzbekistan not as an authoritarian, as we call it before, but even totalitarian or very, very similar to totalitarian regime."

Malashenko tells VOA that as long as Uzbek President Islam Karimov remains in power there will be no advances in political freedom or human rights. He says the events in Andijan only hardened the government's position to maintain a tight grip on power.

Uzbek authorities, backed by Russia, say Islamic insurgents were to blame for the unrest. But numerous independent rights groups, as well as Europe and the United States, say evidence indicates that Uzbek troops fired indiscriminately on hundreds of their own citizens.

Earlier this week, another sensitive trial got under way - that of the leader of Uzbekistan's Ardent Hearts human rights group, Mutabar Tojiboyeva, who is accused of accepting money from Western governments to disrupt public order.