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Uzbekistan court convicts 15 for role in May uprising

Rights groups say confessions were gained by torture

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Uzbekistan's top court yesterday convicted 15 men for organizing a May uprising that killed more than 180 people, ending a trial that was criticized as a government-orchestrated show with testimony coerced by torture.

The May 13 crackdown has left President Islam Karimov's authoritarian government increasingly isolated by the West.

The government has sought to use the six-week trial to bolster its claims that the uprising in the eastern city of Andijan had actually been an armed, Islamic-backed insurrection.

As the court passed sentences of up to 20 years on the men -- the first to face trial in connection with the unrest -- Karimov made a high-profile trip to Moscow to sign a sweeping treaty that significantly bolsters military and security ties with Russia. The Kremlin has strongly backed Karimov's version that Islamic extremists were responsible.

Uzbek authorities say 187 people were killed in the shooting that ended the Andijan uprising. Human rights groups say several hundred people, mostly unarmed civilians, were killed.

All 15 defendants had pleaded guilty, but human rights groups alleged the confessions came as the result of torture.

Judge Bakhtiyor Jamolov said the trial had been objective and fair and passed sentences in line with prosecutors' requests, giving five defendants 20 years in prison, one man 18 years, three 17 years, two 16 years and the remaining four 14 years.

''The trial was conducted in line with the law, and the verdict was based on an objective assessment of the testimony from many witnesses and defendants themselves," Jamolov said.

US-based Human Rights Watch, which sent observers to watch much of the proceedings, said that, among other problems, defendants did not have a chance to speak to their lawyers privately and the lawyers were appointed by the state.

''Human Rights Watch has serious concerns about the fairness of this trial," said Andrea Berg, a researcher for the organization in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek rights activist Surat Ikramov said in September that he believed the defendants were forced to confess under torture. Western human rights groups also released reports alleging that Uzbek police had coerced people to confess membership in extremist groups.

The defendants told the court that they lured civilians into participating in demonstrations and opened fire on government troops. They said they had received funds from unidentified ''external destructive forces," as well as Islamic terrorists, including the leader of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, Tohir Yuldosh.

The sentences were announced hours after Jamolov began reading the court's lengthy verdict, which focused in part on the origins of the Akramia group, which is accused of being behind the alleged plot to destabilize the government.

The court linked the group's jailed alleged leader Akram Yuldashev to 1999 bombings in Tashkent and armed incursions by Islamic militants in 1999-2000. Jamolov also repeated prosecutors' earlier accusations that Western journalists were biased, portraying the uprising as a peaceful demonstration instead of an attack by militant Islamists.

Trials are scheduled in coming months for 106 other defendants, charged with lesser, related crimes.

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