Uzbek deaths highlight war on Islamic activism in Central Asia

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It was a grisly reminder of the Uzbek government’s brutality in dealing with Islamic activists. The bodies of two Uzbek prisoners who had died under torture while in police custody were handed back to their families on August 8 for burial. Muzafar Avasov, 35, and Khusnuddin Olimov, 34, are the most recent known victims of Uzbek president Islam Karimov’s ruthless crackdown on Islamic groups in Uzbekistan. Avasov was returned with a broken skull and covered with bruises. Another prisoner, Khusnuddin Khikmatov, 36, is known to have died in prison in May.

The Uzbek authorities seemed intent on harassing Olimov and Avasov even to their graves. Police cordoned off the neighbourhoods where their families were holding their funerals. Nor is this sort of behaviour unusual: human-rights groups estimate that on average at least a dozen prisoners die across the country every month because of cruelty or lack of medical attention.

Avasov and Olimov were serving 20-year and 15-year sentences respectively on charges of involvement in allegedly anti-government and anti-constitutional activities. They were held in the notorious Zhaslyk prison in the northwestern region of Karakalpakistan. According to human-rights groups, abuse by prison guards is ubiquitous in Zhaslyk, which is used mainly to hold political prisoners. Both men were members of the group known as Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami), which is banned. It aims to re-establish a caliphate in one Muslim country, which would then eventually expand to unite all Muslims in one polity. The party does not advocate violence as a means to bring about change; it believes in peaceful change by a mass movement.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s origins go back to the nineteen-fifties, when Palestinian activists first established it. Until the end of the nineteen-eighties, the party was active mainly in the Middle East, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) it spread rapidly throughout Central Asia and Azerbaijan, where it had long had a small underground presence. Party sources estimate its current size in Uzbekistan alone at 80,000 members. Heavy-handed measures against Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan and elsewhere throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus have forced the party to operate an extremely secretive cell-system. Many of its members were also forced to seek sanctuary in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule there.

Unlike the more pacifist Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) advocates the violent overthrow of the government. It was born in December 1991, when young Muslims seized the local Communist Party headquarters in the eastern city of Namangan. They were protesting against the mayor’s refusal to allocate land for a mosque. The protesters were led by Tohir Abdoulhalilovitch Yuldeshev, a fiery 24-year-old activist in the underground Islamic movement during the Soviet era, and Jumaboi Ahmadzhanovitch Khojaiev, a former Soviet paratrooper who spent many years in military service with the Red Army in Afghanistan, during which he developed a high regard for the Afghan mujahideen and their fighting skills.

At the time Yuldeshev and Khojaiev, who later adopted the nom de guerre Juma Namangani, were members of the Uzbek branch of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Infuriated by the IRP’s reluctance to call unequivocally for an Islamic state, they broke away and formed another group, Adolat (Justice), which sought to agitate for an Islamic revolution in Uzbekistan. The government of Uzbekistan banned Adolat in March 1992, arresting 27 members and forcing the group’s leaders into exile in Tajikistan. Khojaiev led a group of Adolat fighters who took part in the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan between Islamic and other groups and the former communist regime. During this war he became known as a daring fighter.

In the mean time Yuldeshev moved to Afghanistan, where he established a network of contacts and toured Muslim countries to raise funds and mobilise support. It is believed that during this period Yuldeshev established a working relationship with Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI), then the main patron of the Taliban. He also lived in Peshawar between 1995 and 1998. While in Pakistan, he set up underground cells of Adolat throughout Central Asia. These cells later played a crucial role in a series of armed incursions into Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan carried out by the IMU in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He returned to Afghanistan and is said to have had a residence in Qandahar, where Mullah Muhammad Omar and Usama bin Ladin also lived.

The IMU was formally established in 1998. Yuldeshev and Khojaiev announced the formation of the IMU from Kabul, where they moved their base in 1998, as the ceasefire in Tajikistan made it a less reliable base of operations. The move to Afghanistan was the culmination of a long shift towards the brand of ‘salafism’ that lies at the heart of Bin Ladin’s version of Wahhabism and the Taliban’s version of ‘Deobandism’. Khojaiev was reported killed alongside Taliban fighters during the battle for the Afghan city of Mazaar-e Shareef.

In June 2001 the IMU changed its name to the Islamic Party of Turkestan, indicating a desire to move from the goal of establishing an Islamic state in Uzbekistan to that of an Islamic state comprising all Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan (the Chinese province of Xinjiang). This move is believed to have been prepared for a long time, as the IMU always welcomed members from non-Uzbek groups, especially Central Asian countries, into its ranks.

The Uzbek authorities held the IMU responsible for a series of car-bombs in February 1999 in Tashkent, in a plot allegedly designed to assassinate president Karimov, that killed 16 people. Authorities named Yuldeshev and Khojaiev as two of the conspirators behind the plot; in November 2000 both were sentenced to death in absentia. The IMU has also carried out a series of kidnaps, including that of four Japanese geologists and eight Cargoes soldiers in August 1999, and of four Americans who were mountain-climbing in Uzbekistan but escaped after being held for six days in August 2000.

The Ferghana Valley is the main centre of Islamic activism in Uzbekistan, which shares the Valley with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Harsh security measures in the Uzbek section of the valley have in effect turned it into a sprawling prison. The Uzbek security services have ringed the valley with a network of roadblocks. In addition to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU, a host of smaller groups are also active in the Ferghana Valley. These include Hizbullah, Justice Society, Long Beard, Repentance, Mission and Ray of Light. They are very secretive and have small followings.

Karimov’s government has instituted a reign of terror designed to wipe out all forms of free political and Islamic expression. Hundreds of mosques have been forcibly shut down and thousands of people have been imprisoned, many for reasons as minor as praying at a mosque. Detainees are usually subjected to torture and maltreatment, and are often sentenced to long prison-terms.

The appalling conditions of political prisoners in Uzbekistan were highlighted in July, when prisoners threatened to riot unless authorities reviewed their cases and improved their treatment. In an open letter to Karimov, the prosecutor’s office, law-enforcement organisations and the media, more than 200 Hizb-ut-Tahrir prisoners, who are serving long sentences in a prison in the town of Zaravshan, some 450 kilometres (280 miles) west of Tashkent, the capital, demanded an end to violations of their rights by prison officers. They demanded that they be allowed to practise Islamic observances and have access to Islamic books and literature. They also called on the authorities to stop persecuting their families.

But in the post-September 11 Pax Americana, wholesale political repression and abuse of human rights have become fashionable so long as they are cloaked in the antiseptic terminology of “anti-terrorism.” In fact, since September 11, Karimov, the former head of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, has been getting a free ride on the “anti-terrorism” train. International criticism and disapproval of Uzbekistan’s abysmal human rights record has softened noticeably. Uzbekistan, which has a long border with Afghanistan, has allowed the US to station troops at the Khanabad airbase near the town of Qarshi, some 90 miles (140 kilometres) from the Afghan frontier. An estimated force of 1,500 US Air Force and Special Forces troops is currently based at Khanabad. In return, American military aid has begun to flow into Uzbekistan.

However, the government’s iron-fist policy has so far failed to stem the Islamic activism in the country. Karimov’s government seems to be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making. Its harsh measures seem to be fuelling the very fervour it is supposed to stem. Shut out of the political system, but possessing a strong social base, the Islamic movement in Uzbekistan seems determined to rise again from the ashes of political repression in the future.

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