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Uzbek Militant Detained in Prague

November 29, 2001

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PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) _ Acting on an international warrant, police have detained an Uzbek opposition leader who came to Prague at the invitation of Radio Free Europe, his lawyer said Thursday.

Uzbekistan accuses Mukhammat Salikh of being an Islamic militant, but a human rights group said the charge is politically motivated and urged the Czech Republic not to extradite him.

Salikh was picked up shortly after arriving in the Czech capital on Wednesday, according to his lawyer, Miroslava Kohoutova, who said a court would rule on his extradition to Uzbekistan by week’s end.

Police spokeswoman Eva Brozova confirmed Salikh was being held in a police cell and said he is wanted in connection with several serious criminal offenses in Uzbekistan. She refused to elaborate.

Salikh, head of the opposition Erk Party, was sentenced in absentia last year to 15 1/2 years in prison for alleged involvement in a bombing that killed 16 people in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999.

He now lives in Norway, where he was granted political asylum after authorities ruled he was in danger of persecution in his homeland. Kohoutova said Norwegian authorities had rejected an extradition request from Uzbekistan.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has received Western praise for opening his airspace and a key air base to U.S. aircraft to help America pursue its campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.

But Uzbekistan’s human rights record has been under criticism, with Western countries complaining that the government’s broad crackdown against Islamic activists is so sweeping that moderate opponents of the regime may be turning to radicalism.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused authorities of torturing to death 15 people during the past three years. Diplomats based in Uzbekistan estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 Uzbeks are in jail for crimes related to political activities.

In a statement Thursday, Human Rights Watch said Salikh’s conviction in Uzbekistan was ``politically motivated″ and urged Czech authorities not to extradite him, calling his plight a ``matter of life and death.″

The statement also said that three of Salikh’s brothers were serving long prison sentences on politically motivated charges reflecting the Uzbek government’s program to arrest relatives of those labeled ``enemies of the people.″

His daughter, Umida Salikh, said by telephone that the family fears that ``if he is extradited he will be killed.″

Radio Free Europe spokeswoman Sonia Winter confirmed the station had invited Salikh, but said that no firm date had been set for his visit.

``His arrival was a surprise for us,″ Winter said.

Funded by the U.S. Congress, RFE, originally created to broadcast to Soviet bloc countries, refocused its programing with the end of communist rule in Europe and now aims to reach a wide range of countries where democracy and human rights are considered flawed.

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