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Uzbek court jails opposition leader for 13 years

Written by: Staff

TASHKENT, Feb 24 (Reuters) A court in Uzbekistan sentenced the leader of a moderate, pro-business opposition grouping to more than 13 years in jail today for economic crimes in what a human rights activist said was a politically-motivated trial.

Since a bloody government crackdown in the town of Andizhan last year in May, the authoritarian Central Asian state has held a series of trials resulting in the jailing of more than 180 people accused of involvement in the uprising.

Sanjar Umarov, a 49-year-old cotton and oil businessman, was not accused of participating in the Andizhan violence, but his arrest in October came after he criticised President Islam Karimov over the government's use of force to suppress it.

''It's obvious that this case was ordered (from above) and is one-sided,'' Surat Ikramov, an Uzbek human rights activist who monitored the trial, said after sentencing.

''No witnesses were brought before the court who could have testified in favour of the defendants,'' he said.

Umarov stood trial alongside three petrol station attendants who used to work for him and were accused of stealing petrol that was meant to be sold to customers.

There was no immediate official comment on the outcome of Umarov's trial on embezzlement charges.

Umarov set up the Sunshine Uzbekistan Coalition last year to campaign for reform of the country's Soviet-style economy, which independent economists say has kept much of the population in poverty.

Following the violence in Andizhan-where troops opened fire on a large crowd of men, women, and children after armed militants seized a government building-Umarov criticised the government and called on people to join his coalition.

Before the trial, which lasted nearly a month, Umarov's lawyer said he saw his client naked and incoherent in his cell.

Opposition activists said they believe the authorities drugged him. Officials have not commented on the condition of his detention.

Courts have jailed dozens of people for involvement in the Andizhan violence but no police or troops have been charged with excessive use of force. Karimov has rejected Western calls for an independent investigation.

Another leading member of Umarov's coalition, Nodira Khidayatova, is on trial on similar charges. Prosecutors have called for her to be jailed for 12 years.

Karimov, who says he is fighting militant Islamists and is backed by Russian and China, has denied any ordinary members of the public were killed in Andizhan. The government says 187 people, mostly ''bandits'' and ''terrorists'' and some police, were killed.


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