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Central Asia: Security Services Take On Religious Dissent

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov (file photo) (RFE/RL) Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin, the prominent ethnic Uzbek religious leader who was killed during a security raid in southern Kyrgyzstan on August 6, is not the first imam to have been targeted by law-enforcement agencies in the region. Several other Uzbek imams have been persecuted before. But he is the first to have been targeted by both Kyrgyz and Uzbek security services.

PRAGUE, August 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Bishkek said Kamoluddin, who was also known as Muhammadrafiq Kalamov, had ties to terrorists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). He was shot dead along with the two alleged IMU members in a joint raid by Uzbek and Kyrgyz security forces.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, dissident Uzbek imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov calls the cleric's killing unprecedented.

"This is a horrifying event. There has been no such case in recent history," Nazarov says. "There have been abductions of Muslims -- Abduvali Qori [Mirzaev] was abducted by the Uzbek secret service. Several other religious figures have also been abducted. [Uzbek authorities] have done lots of dirty deeds. But openly shooting someone hasn't happened in recent history."

Serious Allegations

Nazarov himself is charged with terrorism. Uzbek authorities accuse him of involvement in deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. He fled Uzbekistan and found refuge in Europe in March after spending eight years in hiding in Kazakhstan.

Nazarov and Kamoluddin are by no means the only imams that officials in the region have labeled "terrorists."

Imam Ruhitdin Fahrutdinov is facing trial in Tashkent, charged with terrorism and extremist and anticonstitutional activities. Fahrutdinov -- on the run since 1998 -- was detained in southern Kazakhstan in November and extradited to Uzbekistan.

Abduvali Qori Mirzaev, a prominent imam and a close relative of Kamoluddin, has been missing since 1995. He disappeared after clearing passport control at Tashkent's international airport. Mirzaev's relatives have alleged he was detained by the Uzbek security service, secretly tried, and possibly executed.

Nazarov mentions several other imams he says have been persecuted for their religious activities in Uzbekistan.

Twice As Tough

But none of those cases featured the kind of cooperation between the security services of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that Kamoluddin's case showed.

Uzbek opposition leaders have condemned Kyrgyz officials' dealings with the Uzbek security organs.

Abdurahim Polatov, the exiled leader of the opposition Birlik (Unity) party, calls Kamoluddin's killing a "shameful act."

"It is difficult to comprehend why the Kyrgyz government is cooperating with Uzbekistan and even trying to win the sympathies of [President Islam] Karimov's regime," Polatov says. "Kyrgyzstan might be doing so because it is a small state. Unfortunately, in 1992-94, former Kyrgyz President [Askar] Akaev had a similar [policy] and assisted the Uzbek government in persecuting Uzbek opposition members and human rights activists on [Kyrgyz] territory. Yet it is a shameful act by the new democratic Kyrgyz government."

The joint Uzbek-Kyrgyz raid came soon after the chiefs of those countries' security services agreed to conduct joint counterterrorism operations. The meeting followed talks between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek presidents on combating what they called "international terrorism" and "religious extremism."

Mutual Benefits?

Michael Hall, the director of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asia Project, speculates on the reasons behind Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev's stepped-up collaboration with Tashkent.

"From the very beginning of his rule, Bakiev and the Kyrgyz government in general have been under quite a strong pressure from the Uzbek side," Hall says. "I believe Kyrgyzstan counted on more assistance from Western countries [after its March 2005 revolution]. And I believe they were disappointed with what they've seen. Bakiev and his government feel they have no other option: Uzbekistan is next door. Uzbeks can create lots of problems for the Kyrgyz in many spheres -- for instance, in the energy sector."

Hall says Bakiev has found an area where he can benefit from cooperation with Tashkent: counterterrorism -- by which both sides mean acting against the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, among others.

Hall suggested that Bakiev feels safe with the policy -- keeping Karimov pleased and also limiting Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence. That influence appears to have been growing, not only in Kyrgyzstan's ethnic-Uzbek south, but also in the north of the country.

The Uzbek security service has been active in Kyrgyzstan's south for years, with occasional reports of abductions and forced repatriations with the silent consent of Kyrgyz officials.

Hall says that Uzbeks now appear to have "carte blanche" to conduct operations on Kyrgyz soil.

Official Tashkent was quick to react to Kamoluddin's killing through an official website, highlighting his alleged ties to Islamist radicals.

The website published a long article just hours after the news broke of Kamoluddin's death. The article alleged links to Nazarov and "friendly" ties with IMU leaders. It also alleged that Nazarov and Kamoluddin were "the main organizers, inspirers, and ideologues" of "bandits" who planned terrorist acts in Uzbekistan.

Nazarov dismissed the allegations and said he had never met Kamoluddin in person.

Battling Religious Opponents

Kamoluddin was known for allowing Islamic radicals from Hizb ut-Tahrir to pray at his mosque, although he was critical of the group's ideology. He also criticized the Central Asian governments' religions policies.

Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of Uzbek opposition party Erk (Freedom), calls Kamoluddin a victim of the Karimov regime's pursuit of religious opponents.

"It is an extension of the 15-year state terror of the Karimov regime across the borders," Solih says. "Karimov has not been adequately punished for his terror conducted inside the country. Unfortunately, the world community has not raised its voice and has not responded adequately to this terror. Karimov -- inspired by this -- started extending his terror to foreign lands."

Some in Kyrgyzstan have warned Bakiev against cooperation with Karimov.

Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu says cooperation with Uzbek regime is harming Kyrgyzstan's international image and affecting its democratic development.

"I fear Kyrgyzstan is gradually becoming like Uzbekistan," Bakir-uulu says. "First they fought with the political opposition and weakened it. Now they have turned against religious figures. It was the same in Uzbekistan: First they eliminated the political opposition, then [they] started eliminating religious figures."

It is remains to be seen how Tashkent and Bishkek might benefit from eliminating Kamoluddin in the longer term. He was a prominent religious figure with moderate stance.

The International Crisis Group's Hall predicts that Kamoluddin's death could radicalize some of the imam's followers.

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

Hizb Ut-Tahrir

Arms and leaflets allegedly confiscated from Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Kyrgyzstan in May (RFE/RL)

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