Another nine group members were handed suspended sentences.

  

"We are Muslims and we read the Quran - there's no proof that we belong to Hizb al-Tahrir" - a non-violent Islamic organisation banned in Uzbekistan - Bakhtiyor Ishmatov told the trial's closing session on Thursday.

  

This Central Asian republic has frequently been criticised for only allowing state-authorised clerics with little popular support to organise religious activities.

  

But Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has countered that his country is threatened by dissident Islamist influences from neighbouring Afghanistan and more recently Pakistan.


March explosions

  

From 29-31 March, a series of explosions ripped through various areas of the capital Tashkent and the ancient city of Bukhara, killing at least 40 people and injuring scores of others.

 

"We are Muslims and we read the Quran - there's no proof that we belong to Hizb al-Tahrir"

Bakhtiyor Ishmatov,
accused dissident

Authorities then blamed insurgents for the attacks and rights activists feared a backlash against Muslims in the country.


"Our concern is that we're going to see the same kind of intensification of massive sweeps of peaceful Muslim dissidents, as we saw after 1999," said Acacia Shields, of US-based Human Rights Watch.

 

Backing the call, Amnesty International also condemned Uzbekistan's human rights record, calling on the country to stop executing dozens of people annually without giving them access to a proper justice system.

 

The rights group called on the former Soviet state to end its use of the death penalty.

 

Uzbekistan was an ally in Washington's war in nearby Afghanistan, and it still hosts a major US airbase.