The recent arrest of an alleged Uzbek extremist in Moscow, and the likelihood of his subsequent extradition to Uzbekistan, underscores the ambiguities that dog the war's murky Central Asian battleground.
Russian security forces arrested Yusup Kasimakhunov in Moscow on 13 February, RBK reported on 16 February. According to Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB), Kasimakhunov is one of the leaders of the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Uzbekistan put out an international warrant for Kasimakhunov's arrest on terrorism charges in February 2000. An SNB spokesman told RIA Novosti, "We have reason to believe that...Kasimakhunov, who has been a member of 'at-Tahrir' since 1993 and is active internationally, has become one of the leaders of this extremist religious organization." According to the press service of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Kasimakhunov was born in 1966 and holds Uzbek citizenship.
Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani, a Palestinian refugee who received an education in Islamic law at Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University, founded Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party, transliterated on the group's site -- http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/english/ -- as Hizb ut-Tahrir) in Amman, Jordan in 1953. The group aims to restore the caliphate, implement Islamic law, and lead the worldwide Muslim community in a struggle against the unbelievers. Though it does not advocate the use of violence, the group's radical goals and penchant for secrecy have earned it official ire, and governments have banned it in most of the Middle East and Central Asia.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is believed to have an extensive organizational network in Western Europe, and especially London. Yet it is the group's apparent growth in Central Asia's Ferghana Valley, a densely populated area split among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, that has caused concern and sparked debate. As a 17 October 2003 report by RFE/RL ("Central Asia: A Visit To Ferghana Valley," rferl.org) illustrated, the concerns focus on the growth potential of Islamic extremism in an unstable region wracked by poverty and bad government, while the debates swirl around the wisdom of the sometimes draconian means used to suppress Hizb ut-Tahrir.
"Doctors who viewed Avazov's body said that his injuries 'could only have been caused by immersing Avazov in boiling water.'"
Uzbekistan has taken the harshest measures against the group. According to a 16 February report by Forum 18, an Oslo-based organization dedicated to the defense of religious freedom, some 5,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan may be Hizb ut-Tahrir members and the possession of Hizb ut-Tahrir literature in Uzbekistan can lead to a 10-year jail sentence.
In a recent high-profile case, a court in Tashkent sentenced 63-year-old Fatima Mukhadirova on 12 February to six years in prison for extremist activities. Human rights groups charge that the government is trying to silence Mukhadirova, who has asked for an international investigation into the death of her son, Muzafar Avazov, in August 2002. The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported on 10 August 2002 that doctors who viewed Avazov's body said that his injuries "could only have been caused by immersing Avazov in boiling water." To complicate matters, Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, told IRIN on 12 February that Mukhadirova had, in fact, "been adhering to the principles and ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir." Through Ardzinov provided no further detail, the information, if accurate, suggests that Mukhadirova's sentence may well have been valid under Uzbek law. Clearly, the Mukhadirova and Avazov cases raise stark questions about Uzbekistan's approach to the battle against extremism.
The arrest of Kasimakhunov poses its own questions. Muslim Uzbekistan, a website sympathetic to Uzbek Islamic movements and bitterly critical of the Uzbek government, derided the arrest on 17 February as a Russian sop to an Uzbek "political" request. The site recalls the June 2003 arrest of 55 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir militants from Central Asia at an Uzbek food service facility in Moscow. As "Moskovskie novosti" reported on 1 July 2003, the much-ballyhooed case fizzled, and all but two of the detainees were soon released.
The Kasimakhunov arrest brings observers face to face with now familiar conundrums of the war on terror, leaving them to ponder the quality of the evidence that underpins the charges against Kasimakhunov and the qualities of the judicial system that awaits him in Uzbekistan in the event of his extradition.