Uzbek rights activist goes on trial on religious extremism charges

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - A human rights activist accused of religious extremism went on trial Tuesday in Uzbekistan, in a case seen by rights groups as part of a crackdown on dissent in the Central Asian nation.

In a district court in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Yuldash Rasulov, member of the unofficial Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, pleaded not guilty to charges of recruiting members for banned radical religious groups in southern Uzbekistan and spreading anti-government ideas.

The Human Rights Society's chairman, Tolib Yakubov, said the charges against Rasulov were groundless. He said the case was a political action targeting the group, which the authorities have refused to recognize for several years. Police forcibly broke up a protest by colleagues demanding Rasulov's release after his May arrest.

Uzbekistan's staunchly secular government has been criticized by international human rights groups and Western governments for its methods in its efforts to rein in Muslim extremists. Thousands of moderate Muslims who have done nothing wrong have been imprisoned in the past few years, human rights groups say.

Last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the United States to designate Uzbekistan a "country of particular concern" with regard to religious freedom.

The former Soviet republic's relations with the United States have improved considerably since it welcomed U.S. troops to an Uzbek air base for the military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.