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Central Asia: Governments React To Uncertain Threat From Hizb ut-Tahrir (Part 2)

  • Bruce Pannier

International rights groups have watched with concern as the countries of Central Asia crack down on Islamic groups branded by governments as extremist or violent. Among the targeted groups is Hizb ut-Tahrir, a movement advocating the creation of a region-wide Islamic caliphate and a return to Islam in its pure, original form -- a goal shared by demonstrably radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU. But to date, Hezb ut Tahrir has staged no acts of violence and its goals in the region remain unclear. Nonetheless, scores of its members have been arrested and sentenced to terms in prison. In the second of a two-part series, RFE/RL reports on how individual Central Asian governments are reacting to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and what the group's members see as their aims in the region.

Prague, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are united in staunchly defending their crackdown on outlawed Islamic groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir as part of the broader campaign against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. But reaction to the perceived threat varies from country to country.

The sense of danger is felt most keenly by the government of Uzbekistan. This may be because -- judging by the names of Hizb ut-Tahrir members put on trial throughout Central Asia -- the group comprises mainly ethnic Uzbeks. Human-rights organizations also say that prisons in Uzbekistan hold more Hizb ut-Tahrir members than those in any other country in the region.

Acacia Shields is a Central Asian researcher for the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. She said many Hizb ut-Tahrir members find themselves in Uzbek jails because of their group's superficial resemblance to more radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, which have proven records of violence.

"This is something that is very troubling, that is, the conflation of really disparate Islamic groups in the region. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a distinct organization, separate from Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a militant group, it's an armed organization based outside of Uzbekistan, whereas Hizb ut-Tahrir is a group with members inside the country who avow that they are nonviolent, who have never been accused of any specific violent act, and have never made any statements suggesting that they are in league with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," Shields said.

But Hizb ut-Tahrir cannot be said to invite the understanding of regional governments. Its structure is so secretive -- estimates of the group's Central Asian membership range from several thousand to more than 100,000 -- that most people learn of the group's members only once they are arrested and put on trial, most often for distributing leaflets and other types of propaganda material.

In Uzbekistan, sentences for such activity can be stiff, ranging from 10 to upwards of 20 years. Moreover, rights groups say, members of banned religious groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir can suffer severe beatings at the hands of police officers once in detention. The issue of police torture has recently been spotlighted in Uzbekistan, where four officers this year were convicted for their role in the beating death of a detainee.

Tajikistan, like Uzbekistan, has arrested, tried, and convicted dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members. The Tajik Interior Ministry reported last month it had apprehended more than 20 members since the start of the year. Although Tajik courts hand down comparable sentences to those in Uzbekistan, their legal system is regarded as more transparent, if not necessarily more fair.

RFE/RL spoke to several Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Tajikistan. One, speaking under the pseudonym Safar Jonmahmadov, said many of his fellow members have suffered severe abuse -- and even death -- while in police custody.

"There was Arobidin, an agitator for Hizb ut-Tahrir. In the prison of the [Tajik] Interior Ministry, or somewhere else, he was tortured and died because of this torture," Jonmahmadov said.

Another Hizb ut-Tahrir member, using the pseudonym Navruz Soliev, described his own arrest. He said Tajik police regularly violate proper legal procedure when arresting members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. "The means they used against us were barbaric, even by the standards of their own 'laws.' First, they should come with a document. Second, they need an order from the prosecutor, and third, they should have evidence of a crime [before making an arrest]," Soliev said.

In Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir faces a unique problem. The government itself includes members of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRP, a splinter group that has allied itself with some of the region's radical groups. But IRP's leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, labeled Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremists and added his party is doing all it can to limit the group's influence.

A third Hizb ut-Tahrir member, who spoke under the name Kurban Adhamov, said his group differs from groups like the IRP. "We do not agree with those who go by the means of the IRP. We think that we will follow peaceful means until the time when we form an Islamic caliphate, and therefore we can not be with [the IRP]. But we are their brothers. They understand things differently. They think they are right," Adhamov said.

Kyrgyzstan is perhaps the mildest in its treatment of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Sentences are no longer than 10 years, and are typically much less. Some Hizb ut-Tahrir members, usually those caught distributing or possessing the group's leaflets, are simply fined after a brief detention.

A member of Hizb ut-Tahrir living in southern Kyrgyzstan, who asked not to be named, offered a possible explanation for why Kyrgyz authorities have been relatively tolerant of the group's activities. He said his group has no intention to overthrow the government nor does it bear any ill will toward the country's president, Askar Akaev. But, he said, his group does believe that sooner or later the system must change.

"We are opponents of the democratic system. We are not against individuals if they embrace Islam and return to Allah. If a person wants to live according to Sharia [Islamic law], he is our brother. If he wants democracy and to live by the laws of the 'kufr' [nonbelievers], he is then our enemy. Kufr are our enemies. If Akaev willingly accepts Islam, and if he imposes Islamic laws, he can sit on his throne," the Hizb ut-Tahrir member.

Such militant remarks may be on the rise among Hizb ut-Tahrir members. Bakhtiyar Bobojonov, an Islam specialist at the Tashkent Academy of Sciences, said the group has undergone a philosophical shift since the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign began in neighboring Afghanistan.

"After the campaign against terrorists started in Afghanistan, the position of Hizb ut-Tahrir changed and they became much more radical. They are spreading leaflets and literature calling for war and martyrdom in the war for Islam," Bobojonov said.

Analysts have noted that the recent growth in radical Islamic movements in Central Asia -- particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- may be explained in the chronic poverty and lack of basic freedoms that continue to plague the region.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir member speaking in Kyrgyzstan seems to confirm this. Asked what role his group can play in Central Asia, he said: "The people are tired of democracy. [All around you,] you see unemployment, immorality. Our people are Muslims and they all yearn for Allah and to live by his laws."

(Uktambek Karimov and Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Salimjon Aioubov and Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)