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Central Asia: Conference Participants Pledge To Combat Terrorism

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- a regional security forum that groups Russia, China, and the four Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- held an extraordinary session yesterday in the Chinese capital, Beijing. Participants pledged to combat terrorism in all forms, saying the global war on terror should have no double standards. But the move raises concerns that local governments may use the international drive against terrorism to quell separatist movements in the region.

Prague, 8 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and China yesterday gained support from neighboring Central Asian nations in their fight against Chechen and Uighur separatist minority groups, which both countries say should be considered part of the international drive against terrorism.

Foreign ministers of the SCO -- formerly known as the "Shanghai Five" -- convened in Beijing for an extraordinary one-day meeting to discuss regional cooperation in the wake of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Prior to the meeting -- the first since Uzbekistan joined the group in June -- Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said participants would discuss not only the situation in Afghanistan after the fall of the ruling Taliban militia, but also what he described as "the three forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism." Talks were expected to focus primarily on ways to increase cooperation against regional separatist movements and radical Islamic groups.

Speaking to journalists at the end of the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said all six SCO member states were "supportive of the positions and efforts respectively of China concerning East Turkestan (Uighur) terrorists and of Russia concerning Chechen terrorists, and regard these efforts as part and parcel of the international fight against terrorism."

Participants agreed to develop what they described as a "crisis-response mechanism" to terrorist threats and to set up a regional counterterrorism agency to be made official at an SCO summit in Saint Petersburg in June. The agency is expected to have its headquarters in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

A joint communique released after the meeting stressed that "the fight against terrorism should be carried out on all levels -- globally, regionally, and nationally -- free of bias and with no double standards."

In remarks apparently aimed at foreign countries, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also warned that participants would not welcome any interference in their domestic security issues: "To determine the political climate and the forms of cooperation in the region is, first and foremost, the responsibility of countries located there."

Chinese Foreign Ministry official Zhou Li today echoed Ivanov's remarks, saying the SCO member states expected the same standards the United States applies to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to be applied to what he described as "terrorist groups" in Russia, China, and Uzbekistan.

All three countries have backed the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, and there is growing concern that they might use the ongoing fight against world terrorism as a pretext to strengthen repression against separatist movements or dissident religious groups.

Since September's suicide plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Moscow and Beijing have beefed up security measures against separatists in Russia's southern republic of Chechnya and in China's western Xinjiang province, also known as Eastern Turkestan among Uighurs. Both capitals have justified coercion by likening "separatism" and "terrorism" -- a charge that independence movements in Chechnya and Eastern Turkestan have always rejected.

In a letter sent to each of the Shanghai Six foreign ministries on 4 January, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged SCO member states -- five of which are members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- to show restraint and abide by international norms of human rights while combating alleged terrorists.

A statement released the following day by the watchdog group quoted its Europe and Central Asia Division's executive director, Elizabeth Andersen, as saying "the fight against terrorism should include steps to promote tolerance between different ethnic and religious groups" and that "abusive behavior by security forces only creates the condition in which terrorists can build support."

HRW Deputy Director Rachel Denber told our correspondent that, although the Shanghai Six final communique did not come as a surprise to her, she regrets that the meeting -- which she described as a "very politicized forum" -- chose to adopt a one-sided approach to the separatism issue, notably regarding Chechnya: "I have to say that it is disappointing that this forum did not recognize that the conflict in Chechnya is not uni-dimensional. While Russia has legitimate interests in fighting terrorism in Chechnya, the conflict there has political dimensions as well that many other parties have recognized. And moreover, Russian forces engaged in the 'counterterrorist operation,' as Russia calls it, in Chechnya are notorious for vicious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. And these continued violations make it increasingly unlikely that there will ever be a long-term peaceful settlement, a long-term stability in the region. It is quite disappointing that this forum chose not to look at these other aspects of the Chechnya conflict."

Despite Moscow's claims that it is willing to negotiate with Chechen President Aslant Maskhadov to reach a peaceful settlement to its two-year military campaign against armed separatists, Russian forces have recently carried out an increasing number of so-called "mop-up" operations, sealing off entire villages and reportedly torturing and executing scores of civilians.

Since 11 September, Chinese authorities have taken a similar stance against ethnic Uighurs in the predominantly Turkic-speaking Muslim Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Since the Communists took power in China in 1949, the province has seen an almost constant separatist struggle, punctuated by several waves of street protests and bombing campaigns. Chinese authorities have responded by using indiscriminate coercion against independence activists and civilians, implementing a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, summary executions, and deportations that have driven hundreds of thousands Uighurs away from their native region, mostly into neighboring Central Asian states.

In a statement released on 21 December, the Munich-based East Turkestan Information Center said Chinese law enforcement agencies had arrested more than 3,000 Uighurs since 11 September. Authorities in Beijing have denied the charge, claiming that only convicted criminals were being targeted by the repression.

Ethnic Uighur Ablajan Baret chairs the Florida-based Taklamakan International Human Rights Association.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Baret confirmed that the situation in Eastern Turkestan has substantially deteriorated over the past four months, with Chinese authorities arresting large number of Uighurs and executing some of them: "Five Uighurs -- three in Ghulja [also known under its Chinese name of Yining] and two in Urumqi -- were executed on charges of terrorism. [The Chinese government] killed them without proof. They arrested them and executed them after three months. [Prisoners] were denied even the right to speak to an attorney. We are very concerned by the situation of Uighurs living in Eastern Turkestan after the World Trade Center terrorist bombing."

Baret also said the very limited religious freedom Uighurs were enjoying since the 1990s suddenly came to an end after the September attacks, when Chinese rulers decided to intensify their oppressive policy toward Islam. He said more than 200 Islamic law students, aged between 16 and 30, were recently arrested in Ghulja and sent to an undisclosed location.

Other ethnic Uighurs, however, argue that the repression was already so intense before the September attacks that they have seen little change since. Dilberim Samsakova, who chairs the Nozugum Foundation, an Uighur association based in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, told our correspondent: "The repression already existed before 11 September. The regions of Turfan, Kashgar, and Hotan had been entirely occupied [by Chinese troops]. Everyone caught performing the namaz [prayer] had all sorts of objects thrown at them, although it is normal that people should express their faith in Allah. This cannot possibly be considered a 'terrorist' or 'separatist' act. That was awful."

Human rights groups have expressed concern that Uighurs might also bear the brunt of increased security cooperation between China and neighboring states. They claim that back in 1996, the initial Shanghai Five signatories secretly pledged to extradite to China Uighur activists seeking political asylum in Russia and Central Asia.

Baret of the Taklamakan association told RFE/RL that, since September, the regime of Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf -- which has been on the forefront of the anti-Taliban campaign despite having supported the religious militia for years -- has sent back to China a number of young Uighurs who came there to study Islamic textbooks in local madrassahs, or Koranic schools.

Besides China and Russia, HRW has singled out Uzbekistan as being a regional state where actions to combat terrorism do not reflect international standards of human rights.

In its letter to the Shanghai Six foreign ministers, the group said Uzbek authorities have for years used the fight against terrorism to justify repression against independent Islamic and other religious groups -- harassing, arresting, and torturing thousands of persons branded as terrorists "even though the vast majority is never charged with involvement in acts of terrorism."

Among Uzbek President Islam Karimov's main targets is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, an armed group which U.S. President George W. Bush listed among terrorist organizations linked with Al-Qaeda.

By offering its airspace and one its military bases to allied warplanes, Uzbekistan has proved a key ally to the U.S. in its antiterrorism campaign, and there is some concern that current relations between Washington and Tashkent might be governed by some quid pro quo.

On 6 January, "The Washington Post" reported that Bush was seeking to allow Uzbekistan and seven other former Soviet republics to graduate from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that prohibits countries without open emigration policies from enjoying normal trade relations with Washington. The newspaper quoted U.S. officials as denying that the move might signal decreasing concerns in the White House about human rights violations in the former Soviet Union.

The same day in Tashkent, visiting U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman said Washington would continue pressing Karimov to democratize his regime. But Lieberman's words failed to reassure human rights activists -- who believe there are more than 7,000 political prisoners in Uzbek prisons -- that new regional security concerns would not keep the U.S. from condemning human rights abuses in the Central Asian state.

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