TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (RFE/RL) — A court in Uzbekistan has opened the trial of an Armenian man and his four Uzbek business partners who stand accused of having links with Islamist militants.
Members of the family of Aramayis Avakian, a 33-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan, insist, however, that he is being persecuted because of a business dispute with a local strongman.
Avakian, a father of two from the town of Jizak in eastern Uzbekistan, went missing on September 4. Six weeks later his family found out that he had actually been arrested by the Uzbek National Security Service (NSS) and was charged with “religious extremism, separatism and fundamentalism” on the basis of an alleged text message sent by his friend to his family as well as the fact that he sported a beard at the time of his arrest.
The Uzbek investigators accused Avakian of setting up and leading a group that disseminated Islamic radicalism and attempted to overthrow Uzbekistan’s constitutional order, suspecting that the men may have planned to join the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or some other radical Islamist group operating in the Middle East and beyond.
But Avakian’s Armenian mother Flora Sakunts and Uzbek wife Shirin Tursunova insist that he is a Christian and could not have been involved in activities related to Islamic extremism. They say that he did not shave for 40 days because in accordance with an Armenian tradition he was in mourning for his younger brother and grandfather who died last summer. They also say that information later revealed to them by one of the senior investigators conducting the case confirms that the SMS in question was sent on September 5, one day after the men were arrested by the NSS and, consequently, they could not be in Kazakhstan at that time.
Avakian was engaged in fish farming near Jizak, which is known in Uzbekistan for its fish-breeding industry, and, according to his family, had arguments with local authorities over this business. In particular, a local governor allegedly threatened to have Avakian imprisoned after failing to illegally seize his business.
According to Avakian’s mother, the crackdown on her son began after the official finally decided to get hold of the fish-breeding reservoir rented by the Armenian farmer together with his Uzbek partners.
The trial of Avakian and his four friends began on Wednesday. It lasted only some 40 minutes before being adjourned till January 11. The judge inquired about the personal data of those in the dock.
Sakunts said that she found her son “pale and exhausted, with a broken leg”.
“He had lost weight and could not stand on both legs, they had broken his leg,” she said.
Avakian’s mother claims her son had been subjected to beating and duress while in the detention center as investigators tried to extract evidence from him. “I told him in Armenian not to be afraid,” she said.
The family of Avakian and other defendants reportedly tried to have contacts with them after the end of the court hearing, but the bailiffs and police officers did not allow them to do that, also using trained dog for the purpose.
Meanwhile, law-enforcement bodies continued to put pressure on Avakian’s wife. Even her father has reportedly declared that he has no daughter anymore during one of the traditional community meetings in Jizak.
And Sakunts said that an employee of law-enforcement agencies had also tried to persuade the family of her daughter-in-law not to have contacts with Armenians.
Sakunts, who moved to Uzbekistan from Armenia still during the Soviet times in 1979, became a citizen of the Central Asian state after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. All members of the Avakian family, including Aramayis, acquired Uzbek citizenship then. But now Sakunts says she is ready to return to Armenia.
Uzbekistan, which has been ruled by the authoritarian President Islam Karimov ever since the Soviet collapse, is notorious for its poor human rights record. According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, “the Uzbek government has imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges to enforce its repressive rule, targeting human rights and opposition activists, journalists, religious believers, artists, and other perceived critics.”