An Uzbek appeals court on Friday let stand the conviction of a Jehovah's Witness for inciting hatred in the first criminal proceeding against the Christian group in this Central Asian nation.
Marat Mudarisov, 26, a road worker, was given a three-year suspended sentence in November for stirring up religious hatred. Mudarisov maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
Human rights advocates fear that the conviction heralds a crackdown on Christian groups. Previously, the Uzbek government has targeted independent Muslims in a harsh campaign to stem extremism, drawing international criticism.
Mudarisov's lawyers asked a panel of judges Friday to reverse the sentence and acquit their client for lack of evidence, saying Mudarisov was targeted simply for being a Jehovah's Witness.
John Burns, a Canadian lawyer working on Mudarisov's defense, argued in court that the case was about whether freedom of religious expression is protected in Uzbekistan.
"This appeal goes to the very foundation of Uzbekistan's claim to be a democracy," he said. "We ask this court to show courage and do justice."
However, the judges said they agreed with the trial court's verdict and upheld it. Defense lawyers said they would appeal again.
The case against Mudarisov was based on allegations that at the time of his arrest he had a pamphlet titled, "Truth, The Only Truth," that argues the superiority of the Bible over the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Defense attorneys maintained the pamphlet was planted on their client.
Judge Furkat Khasanov denied Friday that Mudarisov's conviction was connected to his being a Jehovah's Witness, but added: "He got this pamphlet from somewhere and by doing that he has dealt a blow to the whole organization (Jehovah's Witnesses)."
Human rights advocates fear that Mudarisov's conviction heralds a crackdown on Christian groups, and the case has also drawn the attention of U.S. and British diplomats. The Uzbek government has drawn strong international criticism for its ongoing harsh campaign against independent Muslims, which it says is aimed at stemming extremism.
Similar prosecutions against Jehovah's Witnesses were in progress in at least two other cities in Uzbekistan at the time of Mudarisov's trial last November. Those cases on charges of illegal missionary activity and proselytizing were later dropped.
The group says it has at least 3,000 members in this former Soviet republic.
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