Uzbek opposition leader released ahead of extradition hearing

Mr Salikh

The exiled Uzbek opposition leader Mukhamed Salikh was released by a Prague court on Tuesday, twelve days after he was taken into custody on an Interpol arrest warrant. Uzbekistan wants Mr Salikh extradited, to serve a 15-year prison sentence for a series of bombings in the capital Tashkent in 1999, attacks which left at least 16 people dead. But human rights groups say the charges are politically motivated, and Mr Salikh is innocent. Jan Velinger has more.

Mr Salikh
Mukhamed Salikh is a critic of Uzbekistan's hard-line president Islam Karimov, and human rights groups say if returned to his homeland Mr Salikh would face a long prison sentence and perhaps even the death penalty. Mr Salikh has been released from custody pending an extradition hearing, and he should learn this week whether he will be ordered to return to Uzbekistan, or allowed to return to Norway, where the dissident has asylum. The U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe, who invited Mr Salikh to Prague, say they have often worked with him in the past, and believe the allegations against him are groundless. I spoke to the station's spokeswoman Sonia Winter:

"We don't feel at RFE that there were any grounds for that, otherwise we would not have invited him here in the first place. He has worked with us for many years in the sense that we interview him about the situation in Uzbekistan. He speaks on our programme about the violations of human rights in his country. He has three brothers who were imprisoned simply because they were his brothers, and they remain in jail. So obviously, we do not feel there was any validity to those allegations."

Miss Winter says Mr Salikh has been the target of a relentless campaign by Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov.

"I think he would face certain death if he was returned to Uzbekistan, and President Karimov has been persecuting him even before he left the country, which was why he left in 1993. He went to Turkey and the Uzbek government tried to get him extradited from Turkey, he didn't feel safe there, then he went to Norway, where he was given political asylum. Karimov's government asked the Norwegians to extradite him three times, and the Norwegian government denied it three times, so there is a persistent campaign on the part of the Uzbek government, to get him back, and obviously their intentions are not very good."

RFE's spokeswoman feels that the Czech authorities did take the proper steps under the circumstances, but she does question why Interpol had issued an arrest warrant in such a highly political case.

"Well, I don't know that the criteria, or the procedure, or the way that an Interpol warrant is issued, but obviously if the Uzbek government can do this on the grounds of a trial that was observed by international monitors in 1999, and was judged to be a typical Communist monster trial with no real evidence and a foregone conclusion in finding him guilty, so obviously if on the basis of evidence like that you can issue an Interpol warrant, then something needs to be changed."

RFE's spokeswoman says Mr Salikh has endured his detention well, and bears no ill will against the Czech Republic.

"We have been continually in touch with him, I visited him in prison, and I was waiting for him when he was released, he spent the whole day yesterday at the radio station, and I must say he is remarkably calm and serene. He says he doesn't blame anyone. He says he feels he is a very devout Muslim, he's observing Ramadan, in prison he fasted during the day, because it is the month of fasting for Muslims, and he is cheerful and in a good mood because he feels that his fate is in the hands of God".