U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has condemned the kidnapping and beating of a human rights defender in Uzbekistan and has called on the government to investigate the attack, according to a statement received by Agence France-Presse on Tuesday. The rights group said that Surat Ikramov was abducted and assaulted on the morning of August 28 by masked men as he returned from a meeting to set a court date for appealing the conviction of an imprisoned gay journalist, Ruslan Sharipov. "Ikramov has been a fearless critic of the Uzbek government," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division. "His reports let the world know about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. We
suspect that there may be more to this incident than mere criminal thuggery," she added.
Ikramov had been working actively as a public defender of Sharipov, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for sodomy last month in what Western rights groups denounced as a political trial. Ikramov had helped to organize a protest outside parliament in Tashkent that took place on the day after his assault, HRW said. Uzbekistan, a key ally in U.S. antiterror efforts in Central Asia, is a former Soviet republic that has one of the most repressive regimes in the region. Rights groups regularly report cases of torture in its prisons and harassment of the media by its police. The number of political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan is estimated at 6,500.