Uzbek opposition leader arrested for theft

Uzbek authorities have arrested an opposition leader on embezzlement charges, the Interior Ministry said Monday, after he pushed for the easing of autocratic rule. Chairman of the Sunshine Coalition Sanjar Umarov, a wealthy businessman-turned-politician, was arrested for "the theft of millions and embezzlement," the ministry said.

Umarov was detained on Saturday, the Web site said.

Umarov called on the Uzbek government last week to start a political dialogue, and sent an open letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who was on a visit to Uzbekistan at the time. In the letter, the coalition expressed its intention to look for a resolution of the current political crisis in Uzbekistan, and called for stronger integration and economic ties with Russia.

The Sunshine Coalition was formed in April in the wake of the revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Askar Akayev. It gained prominence in May for denouncing the brutal quelling of a popular uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan.

Rights groups said Uzbek troops fired on unarmed protesters, killing more than 700 people. The government contends the uprising was encouraged by Islamic extremists, and puts the death toll at 187.

A former scientist with a doctorate in physics, Umarov made his fortune in the cotton and oil businesses, and reportedly has strong business ties to the West. His wife and five children live in the United States.

Authoritarian Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has ruled the former Soviet state for 16 years, has shut down opposition parties and conducted a relentless crackdown on political foes and Muslims, jailing thousands. No group has been able to mount a serious challenge to his rule.