Uzbek opposition activist in prison for 10 years

A prominent Uzbek opposition activist was convicted Wednesday on money laundering and tax evasion charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Nodira Khidoyatova, 38 of the opposition Sunshine Coalition remained calm in a metal cage in the Tashkent City Court as the judge read the verdict. She was also fined US$227,000 (191,000).

"Khidoyatova's guilt has been proven beyond any doubt," judge Zokirjon Isayev said. Khidoyatova, a mother of two, had pleaded not guilty to the charges. Khidoyatova's lawyer, Oleg Babenko, promised to appeal. Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups have condemned the arrests of opposition activists in Uzbekistan as an official crackdown on dissent in this ex-Soviet republic.

"The sentence was obviously sanctioned by the country's leadership," said Khidoyatova's sister, Nigara, who is also an activist in the Sunshine Coalition. "I call it a backlash from the very top to teach others not to meddle into Uzbek politics. The trial was a farce," she told The Associated Press.

The Sunshine Coalition gained prominence for denouncing the brutal quelling of a popular uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan last May. 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.

President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union , has cracked down on political foes and dissident Muslims, jailing thousands. Facing Western criticism, Karimov's government has refused an international inquiry into the Andijan events, and evicted a U.S. military base used for operations in Afghanistan .

Khidoyatova was arrested in December, two months after the Sunshine Coalition's chairman, Sandjar Umarov, was detained on similar charges. A court is expected to deliver a verdict in Umarov's case on March 6. "Who did my mom scare and how?" Khidoyatova's 15-year-old daughter Malika said after sentencing. "Perhaps, I don't understand something, but my heart is writhing with pain."

Nodira and Nigara are daughters of prominent historian Goga Khidoyatov, who upset Uzbek authorities by criticizing a ruthless 15th century Muslim conqueror named Tamerlane, who is officially considered a founder of the Uzbek state, reports the AP.


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