Salikh released - Uzebek dissident awaits court ruling on extradition
The case of prominent Uzbek dissident Mohammed Salikh has divided Czech and international observers into two camps: the embarrassed and the perplexed.
"Those of us interested in human rights simply can't believe that the Czech government would arrest this man and are truly baffled that it would hold him," said Mark Katz, a political scientist and an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at George Mason University in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Salikh, who was detained and jailed by Czech authorities at Ruzyne airport Nov. 28, is now free as he awaits a court decision on whether he will be extradited to Uzbekistan, where he was convicted for terrorist acts.
Rights groups say Salikh faces torture and death at the hands of the Uzbek regime, headed by President Islam Karimov, if he is extradited. He had traveled to Prague to participate in a broadcast by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Czech police acted on an international arrest warrant issued after an Uzbek court found Salikh guilty in absentia of a 1999 bombing in Tashkent that left 16 people dead. Uzbekistan is a former Soviet republic bordering embattled Afghanistan.
Released from Pankrac prison Dec, 11, Salikh refused to blame the Czech government for his predicament, saying he hoped his case was "just a mistake."
He said he was determined to turn the incident into a political litmus test for Europe's policy toward Central Asia.
"If I am extradited," he said, "it will mean the West accepts these dictatorships. The question is very simple: Which does the West support: dictatorship or democracy?"
Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which observed Salikh's 1999 trial in Tashkent, call the trial a farce. The organization said no material evidence had been presented against Salikh, a 52-year-old poet and the leader-in-exile of the opposition Erk (Freedom) party.
According to Matilda Bogner, director of Human Rights Watch's Tashkent office, such trials are common in Uzbekistan, where Karimov opponents are often considered extremists or terrorists.
"The government uses the threat of terrorism to crack down on peaceful independent Muslims within the country," Bogner said. "When people are arrested, they're taken into custody and commonly tortured for confessions."
Salikh, who has resided in Norway since winning UN-supported political asylum there in 1999, has also received backing from the Scandinavian nation, which demanded he be permitted to leave the country.
Although the Czech Republic signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention forbidding the return of exiles to the nation that persecuted them, authorities here decided to hold Salikh while processing an extradition request from Uzbekistan.
The decision dismayed President Vaclav Havel. "This should never have happened," Havel said, adding that he partly blamed "fear of a Muslim element" for Salikh's detention.
Following the U.S. lead in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, European authorities have been circumspect in their handling of cases involving Muslim figures.
England and Germany are two EU nations that have increased police surveillance on their strong Muslim communities.
In an open letter from Pankrac prison before his release, Salikh said he was especially surprised he was detained here. "I had no idea that in Vaclav Havel's free country I would be taken into custody. I thought the Czech Republic was one of the candidate countries for European Union membership, with legal norms equivalent to the EU's."
The European Union, which this country hopes to join in 2004, bars extradition to nations with the death penalty.
"The longer Prague detains Salikh, the more doubts arise about the Czech Republic's commitment to democracy and human rights," George Mason's Katz said.
Katz met Salikh twice in Tashkent in 1992 -- the year after Salikh's failed run again Karimov, widely considered an autocratic figure.
Katz recalls Salikh as "more a scholar than a politician" and a man with a gentle sense of humor.
Salikh fled Uzbekistan soon after Karimov outlawed opposition parties, also in 1992. But he continued to attack Karimov in his writings.
Bogner of Human Rights Watch said thousands of Uzbek citizens have been unjustly jailed since 1997 under a law banning "unconstitutional acts," which include studying the Koran and learning Arabic.
She said prisoners are regularly beaten and tortured and often die in custody. She has no doubt that a similar fate awaits Salikh if he is extradited.
Another international rights group, Amnesty International, said it fears Karimov is exploiting Uzbekistan's new role as a strategic ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism as an opportunity to eliminate dissent.
Salikh agrees. "I don't want to sound cynical," he said, "but Sept. 11 was a big piece of luck for our president. The friendship with America that he was always trying to strike up finally came to pass. Now, he can easily fight not only Islamic fundamentalism but also political opposition in his country."
Katz believes the waning of the war in Afghanistan may spark new urgency in Karimov's efforts to root out his enemies.
"I think [Karimov] feels some urgency about doing this since the war in Afghanistan looks like it may be coming to a close," Katz said. "Salikh in particular is someone he wants to get a hold of. Whatever the results of the 1991 elections, if free elections were held now, Salikh stands a very good chance of winning them."
But Bogner thinks Salikh has been largely forgotten in Uzbekistan.
"For people who have been involved with the opposition, Salikh is one of the most important figures," she said. "But now that opposition has been so destroyed, for the ordinary person on the street he's not going to mean a lot."
But in his letter from prison, Salikh minimized this.
"I don't care about having the title ,poet` or ,party leader,`" he wrote. "I've learned this has no effect on the police. It would suffice if there were just a few words under my picture saying, ,He is not a terrorist.` It's a privilege, not being a terrorist."
James Pitkin's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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