Arrest of moderate opposition leader politically motivated - rights groups

The arrest of a moderate opposition leader in Uzbekistan charged with embezzlement and economic crimes following his repeated demands for reforms, is politically motivated, opposition and rights groups said on Tuesday.

Sanjar Umarov, 49, is the leader of “Serkuyosh Uzbekistonim” (Sunshine Uzbekistan) – a new opposition coalition. He is also a successful businessman with links to the energy and cotton sectors and gained popularity following his vocal denunciation of bloodshed in eastern Uzbekistan in May.

He was arrested on Sunday following a raid on his office and charged with embezzlement of “millions of soms [Uzbek currency] and other economic crimes,” according to the general prosecutor’s office.

“His arrest is absolutely politically motivated, I think authorities are worried that our coalition is gaining support nationally,” Nodira Hidoyatova, the organisations’ coordinator, told IRIN.

According to Hidoyatova, his arrest came after a visit to the US and Russia last month where he held a number of meetings and outlined the coalition's economic reform programme.

Atanazar Aripov, secretary general of the underground secular opposition party Erk (Liberty) said Umarov’s arrest, despite his claimed connection with the Uzbek establishment, showed how little room there was for alternative voices in the country.

“As far as I know, Umarov’s coalition, unlike other opposition groups, has never pushed for political change of the system, instead he called only for economic reforms and claimed to have good support within the government,” Aripov said, from the capital, Tashkent.

Umarov formed the coalition in April 2005 in the wake of the revolution in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Askar Akayev a month earlier.

The movement gained more prominence in May after it denounced the mass killings in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, calling for the immediate dismissal of the government and reform and liberalisation in the country’s stagnant economy. Tashkent says less than 200 people died in the Andijan protests, human rights groups and witnesses put the figure at up to 1,000 dead.

Despite the fact that Uzbek authorities have clamped down hard on critics and opposition in recent months, Umarov continued his criticism of what happened in May.

“The Andijan tragedy happened because the authorities absolutely don’t care about the wishes and problems of ordinary people, they do not respect them and they don’t allow them to take part in the political life of the country,” he wrote in a letter on 18 October.

At the same time, Umarov sent an open letter to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who was visiting Uzbekistan at the time.

In the letter, the coalition expressed its intention to seek a solution to the political crisis in Uzbekistan and called for stronger integration and economic ties with Russia.