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Repression Feeds Extremism In Central Asian States

(Washington, DC--April 1, 2002) Continued government repression, particularly in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, is breeding extremist movements in all five Central Asian republics, according to four leaders of human rights organizations active in Central Asia who spoke at a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington offices last week.

Vitaly Ponomaryov, Director of the Central Asian Program of the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, characterized the regime of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov as "unprecedented among the republics of the former Soviet Union" in its efforts to repress its citizenry and close the country to the rest of the world. According to Ponomaryov, Niyazov imprisons more political dissidents than all of the post Soviet states combined, and Niyazov's regime tortures the families of opposition members who have fled Turkmenistan. Although some political prisoners have been released, Ponomaryov said, new trials of political dissidents are ongoing. Ponomaryov added that Niyazov had undercut the stability of his own regime in the last year by launching a wave of arrests against several hundred high officials and their families, thereby making his regime even more "brittle" and "quite shaky".

Pulat Akhunov, a former political prisoner in Uzbekistan and senior member of the opposition Birlik Party of Uzbekistan, said that the tragic events of September 11th have given the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov a new "opportunity to crack down" on political and religious opposition in that country. Akhunov said that the government's repression of the religious opposition has been even more severe than the measures it has taken against the secular political opposition. Now that the "independent press and parties have disappeared from Uzbekistan" Akhunov said, the government has tortured to death several of its opponents in prison. Unlike the situation in Turkmenistan, "Karimov and his clique will continue to cling to power endlessly," said Akhunov.

Atanazar Arifov, the General-Secretary of the opposition Erk Party of Uzbekistan and aformer political prisoner, said that "the will of the [Uzbek] government is anti-democratic" and that the "negative developments overshadow the few positive steps" the Karimov regime has taken in recent months "because of the U.S. presence." Since there are "no legalized means of political protest in Uzbekistan" Arifov said, "we have to rely on influence from outside to push Karimov" to stop the repressions and extreme government policies. According to Arifov, "the Clinton Administration did have a program", but the effort appears "to have been put aside" by the United States.

Abdusalom Ergashev, head of the Ferghana branch of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, said that recent convictions of political activists in a Ferghana district court, where members of Hizb-ut Tahrir (a "utopian" group seeking the non-violent establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia) received 7 to 20-year sentences, could drive this group to become a terrorist organization like the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU). Ergashev said that the IMU, which is based outside of Uzbekistan, had grown out of the Uzbek government's repression of a peaceful Islamic political movement, "Adolat," in the Ferghana Valley.

Ergashev said the most pressing problem in the densely populated Ferghana Valley area was unemployment, which made the area susceptible to drug trafficking and transshipment. In this regard, Ergashev said it was a tragedy that "the Great Silk Road has become the Great Drug Trafficking Road."