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Uzbekistan: Does Latest Violence Follow Pattern Of Extremism?

  • Bruce Pannier --> Last week's violence in Uzbekistan brought back memories of similar attacks in Uzbekistan in 1999 and 1997. Those previous incidents were both blamed on Islamic extremists, and the government of President Islam Karimov seems intent on blaming the latest round on militants as well. RFE/RL looks for patterns in the waves of Uzbek violence, and at how the government may respond this time around.

Prague, 5 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Last week's string of attacks in Uzbekistan left 47 people dead, including 33 people the Uzbek government has labeled "terrorists."

Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov gave the casualty count of innocent civilians killed and injured during last week's bombings and violent clashes in Tashkent and Bukhara. Ten police officers died in the attacks, which appeared largely aimed at law-enforcement bodies.

"As a result of the terrorist attacks and the conducted operations for detaining the offenders, 14 people have died, three of them children. Thirty-five citizens received injuries of different degree," Qodirov said.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the violence, although the government has fingered a typical culprit -- Islamic extremists. Islamic militants are thought to be behind similar waves of violence in past years.

In February 1999, five car bombs exploded in Tashkent, killing 16 people and injuring more than 100 others. The bombs appeared aimed at government targets; one went off along the road used by President Islam Karimov to travel to work.

"I happen to believe that from this tragedy, moving toward the goal of bringing about greater political freedoms and economic freedoms, is the natural and correct step."
Uzbek authorities were quick to label the attacks an assassination attempt against Karimov. They blamed extremists they called simply "Wahhabis" -- the term for the strict Saudi-based Islamic set, which in Central Asia has come to denote simply any Muslim whose religious observance falls outside of state-sanctioned guidelines.

Tahir Yuldash, a leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) -- a radical Islamic group that embodied the worst of the government's fears of so-called Wahhabism -- claimed responsibility for the 1999 bombings.

Islamists were also believed to be behind violent clashes in Namangan in November and December of 1997. A total of four police officers were killed in those attacks, which marked the start of the government crackdown on Islamic militants.

Security sweeps in 1998 sent estimated hundreds of people to jail for alleged Wahhabist practices -- sometimes as little as wearing a beard or regularly attending prayers at mosque.

Some of those being persecuted fled to Tajikistan's eastern mountains, returning in 1999 as the IMU, a group with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda. The IMU was believed to be significantly weakened during the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. But its name quickly surfaced last week as the government sought to lay blame for the spate of violence.

Uzbek authorities have also named Hizb ut-Tahrir among the suspects behind the latest attacks. Hizb ut-Tahrir has incurred Tashkent's wrath by agitating for a regionwide caliphate. But it does not advocate violence as a means of achieving its ends, and has never been officially tied to any attacks in Central Asia. The group has denied any connection to last week's violence.

Another possible link between 1999 and 2004 is the so-called "grey cardinal" of Uzbekistan, Ismail Jurabekov, who played a significant role in promoting Karimov's rise through the party ranks in Soviet-era Uzbekistan.

The accepted head of the powerful political grouping known as the Samarkand clan, Jurabekov was unceremoniously ejected from public service in November 1998, dismissed from his post as agriculture minister. Analysts initially linked him to the 1999 bombings, speculating he orchestrated the attacks as a form of political revenge. Jurabekov was later reinstated as Karimov's political adviser in early 2000 -- but was once again squeezed out in February (2004).

Uzbek authorities have also sought to tie responsibility for the 1999 attacks to the secular opposition. Karimov has named Mohammad Solih, the head of the Erk Democratic Party and a one-time presidential opponent, as a co-conspirator in the 1999 attacks.

Solih was eventually tried in absentia and sentenced to 15 1/2 years in prison for conspiring with Islamic groups to overthrow the government. Solih was long out of the country by then, but many of his family members ended up in jail for their ties to Solih and his alleged plot.

Erk's parliamentary hopes in 1999 were dashed by the government's insistence the group was linked to the attacks. This time around, Erk -- which lost its official registration in late 1992 but hopes to be re-registered in time for this year's parliamentary elections -- was quick to condemn last week's attacks and deny any connection to the violence.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Solih said the Erk statement was meant to avoid a repeat of 1999. "We decided to write this statement because we believe we were a bit passive when these kind of events took place last time [in 1999]," he said. "The Uzbek government used it against us and arrested people, including myself, who had nothing to do with these events. My brothers and many other innocent people were arrested and, as you know, many of them are still in prison."

Some rights organizations estimated thousands of people were brought in for questioning after February 1999, and some 7,000 were imprisoned. Those imprisoned were said to be Wahhabis and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, though evidence against them was often vague and inconsistent.

The mass arrests spurred hundreds of women to stage public demonstrations, demanding their male relatives be released from prison. Some of the female protesters threatened to set themselves on fire if their relatives were not set free -- which may provide some insight into the role of female suicide bombers in last week's attacks.

Rights organizations are concerned that mass arrests may again follow the latest round of violence. There is fear that the Uzbek government -- which now enjoys warm ties with the United States in return for its cooperation in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan -- may act with even greater impunity in rounding up suspects.

U.S. Representative David Dreier, who is heading a U.S. congressional delegation currently visiting Uzbekistan, said Tashkent could best prevent future attacks by promoting greater freedom. "I happen to believe that from this tragedy, moving toward the goal of bringing about greater political freedoms and economic freedoms, is the natural and correct step," he said.

Prosecutor-General Qodirov said yesterday that 19 people have been detained so far. But past investigations have often lasted as long as several months, and the number of detainees is likely to grow.

(Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)