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Central Asia Report: January 19, 2006

19 January 2006, Volume 6, Number 2

WEEK AT A GLANCE (9-15 January). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev took the oath of office and began a new seven-year term in an inauguration ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a number of other CIS leaders. Nazarbaev vowed to make Kazakhstan one of the 50 most developed countries in the world, stressed plans to join the World Trade Organization and chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009, and pronounced his country "firmly committed to strategic partnership with Russia, the People's Republic of China, and the United States." Later in the week, a court granted jailed opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov parole. Zhaqiyanov, one of the founders of the now outlawed opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, was welcomed by supporters upon his arrival in Almaty. He had been serving a seven-year prison term on corruption charges his supporters maintained were politically motivated.

Kyrgyz sports star Raatbek Sanatbaev was gunned down outside his home in Bishkek. The wrestler had been a leading candidate to succeed Bayaman Erkinbaev, a legislator who was shot dead in September 2005, as president of Kyrgyzstan's National Olympic Committee. In the wake of the killing, some lawmakers called on the authorities to employ "terror" against criminal elements. Bishkek city prosecutor Uchkun Kerimov warned journalists to refrain from publishing slanderous materials about President Kurmanbek Bakiev, prompting the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society to denounce the remarks as an infringement on freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the fate of four Uzbek refugees currently in detention in Kyrgyzstan, urging the Kyrgyz government not to hand them over to Uzbek authorities. And the outlawed organization Hizb ut-Tahrir distributed free meals and toys in Osh to mark the start of Eid Al-Adha, with local residents convincing police to allow what they described as a peaceful event devoted to an Islamic holiday.

The trial of Ghaffor Mirzoev, former commander of Tajikistan's presidential guard and former head of the country's Drug Control Agency, began behind closed doors. Mirzoev faces charges that include embezzlement and attempting to mount a coup. Tajik police detained Sadullo Yatimov, the director of an orphanage where a fire recently killed 13 children. Yatimov faces charges of negligence.

In nationally televised remarks, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov raised the prospect of a presidential election in 2009 or 2010. Niyazov, who has touched on the possibility of an election in occasional statements in the past, told citizens, "You should elect the best person as head of state because the same man cannot always be leader." And official statistics showed that Turkmenistan produced 63 billion cubic meters of natural gas in 2005, an 8 percent year-on-year increase, with exports notching an identical increase to reach 45.2 billion cubic meters in 2005.

An Uzbek court reportedly sentenced Andijon-based rights activist Saidjahon Zainabiddinov to a seven-year prison term for spreading "false information" about the suppression of unrest in Andijon on 13 May 2005. Zainabiddinov had spoken frequently with foreign journalists at the time, providing information on rights violations. And U.S.-based rights organization Freedom House announced that the Civil Court of Tashkent ordered the suspension of the organization's activities for six months for "allowing human-rights defenders free access to the Internet" and failing to comply with a secret cabinet decree. Freedom House condemned the ruling and vowed to appeal.

CENTRAL ASIAN LEADERS FEEL THE PULL OF POETRY. Some people lust after power. But for those who already reign supreme, it sometimes seems their lives are still not complete. And so they turn to the arts and write poems, books, and even multivolume tomes for their countrymen to read. Such are the men leading the countries of Central Asia.

Central Asia's presidents have been called many things by their critics -- strongmen, despots, enemies of the press, and violators of human rights. But every now and then they unclench their "iron fists," pick up a pen or pencil, and produce poems and books for their countrymen.

Some Central Asian specialists speculate that the penchant of today's leaders for producing books, poetry and songs is due to their desire to be seen as wise and cultured guides for their nations.

Their work can pop up in unexpected places. For example, when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was sworn in for another term on 11 January, the national anthem was played with some new words added.

The author of the new text: the president himself.

In fact, the song is some 50 years old and was written by Shamshi Kaldayakov. And Nazarbaev -- the new co-author of the lyrics -- is modest about the achievement. He admits he only made some amendments to the text to make the anthem "more contemporary."

But Nazarbaev is not so retiring when it comes to writing books. He is the author of six books, ranging in titles from "In The Heart Of Eurasia" (Parts 1 and 2), an essay -- one of many -- titled "My Homeland And My Support." All present his personal vision of Kazakhstan as a flourishing, modern, secular state.

The Kazakh government printing office pays special attention to his work. The official website,, lists the "creations of the president" as a special category.

'You Did Not Look My Way'

In Tajikistan, as any citizen can tell you, President Imomali Rakhmonov, is a singer.

"As I was sitting on the corner of the roof of your house you did not call me/I was thirsty to see your face, wanted so much to see your face/But you did not look my way."

The Tajik people could also tell you that Rakhmonov, a former salesman and the head of a state farm in communist times, has authored four volumes on Tajik history.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov is also a writer. Karimov has 12 tomes (some comprising as many as six volumes) to his credit, plus essays. Karimov is an economist by training and so most of his works deal with economics. But he also has written books such as "Uzbekistan On The Threshold Of The 21st Century" that present the Uzbek president's vision of his country's future.

And there are still more examples of poet presidents to consider -- past as well as present.

'Enemies Are All Around Us'

Askar Akaev is no longer the president of Kyrgyzstan, having been chased from office in March last year. But he, too, was a prolific writer.

Akaev was a physicist by training and had already authored a number of scholarly works before he became president. However, books like "Economics Through The Eyes Of A Physicist" and those devoted to ancient Kyrgyz history seemed to some of his critics to test the limits of even a scientist's training.

So far, Akaev's successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has not authored any works in the short time he has been Kyrgyzstan's president.

But without a doubt, the most published author among Central Asia's leaders is Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Niyazov turns at times to poetry, as can be seen in this work "The Three Dangers." He is believed to have written it three years ago:

"I beseech [you] be careful/Be vigilant/When a state thrives happiness comes directly/And your throne is like the throne of Suleiman/But be careful/Enemies are all around us"

But Niyazov's true interest appears to be compiling his "Rukhnama," which so far has reached two full volumes in length. The effort seems to have begun in the late 1990s when Niyazov appealed to the people of his country to write to him and give their ideas about the virtues of the Turkmen people.

The first volume appeared on 19 September 2001. The date has since been declared a national public holiday to commemorate the event.

Today, the first and second volumes of "Rukhnama" are required reading for all Turkmen citizens. Even schoolchildren learn to recite verses from the work and it would be impossible to find a position in the government without extensive knowledge of its contents. Reports have surfaced that even traffic police demand a quotation from "Rukhnama" when they stop violators. Those who cannot recite a verse or two are fined.

Ghost Written?

There are more than a few observers who question whether the Central Asian presidents actually authored all their works. Nonetheless, their names grace an ever increasing number of works. And those works -- at least in their own countries -- must be taken seriously by the population.

Analysts say that as the Central Asia's heads of state engage in the arts, they are creating a new tradition for leaders in the region. Traditionally, Central Asian leaders have not felt compelled to engage in artistic pursuits though many, like the 10th century leader Mahmud of Ghazna, did support poets and writers. In Mahmud's case it was the famous writer Firdawsi.

Instead, today's Central Asian leaders may owe their need to write to the leaders of the Soviet Union. Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, of course, produced many works, and so did Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and others.

Some Central Asian specialists speculate that the penchant of today's leaders for producing books, poetry and songs is due to their desire to be seen as wise and cultured guides for their nations. These feelings may be stronger for today's leaders than for previous emirs and khans because the Central Asian strongmen of centuries past could claim to be authorities in religious affairs -- something today's presidents, all former Soviet communist leaders, cannot do. (By Bruce Pannier, with contributions from RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services. Originally published on 17 January.)

HIZB UT-TAHRIR'S CALLS FOR ISLAMIC STATE FIND SUPPORT. Tajik authorities announced on 16 January that 99 purported Hizb ut-Tahrir members were arrested last year. Many were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for "extremist activities." Experts say that despite crackdowns on Hizb ut-Tahrir by governments across the region, the number of the group's members and sympathizers has been on the rise in recent years.

It is hard to say how many members Hizb ut-Tahrir has in Central Asia. Some experts say there are thousands who share the group's main goal -- creating a caliphate, or an Islamic state. Hizb ut-Tahrir's members say they are as many as tens of thousand.

In Tajikistan, 99 purported Hizb ut-Tahrir members, including 16 women, were arrested in 2005 alone. As the country's authorities announced on 16 January, 38 of them have already been sentenced to lengthy jail terms for "extremist activities."

Security Ministry official Abdulqader Mohamadiev alleged that two of those arrested were Hizb ut-Tahrir leaders. "It has been established by the investigation that one of them is the deputy leader of this party's cell [in Tajikistan], and the prosecutor's office of the Sughd region [in northern Tajikistan] is investigating this case now," Mohamadiev said. "The other person, whose investigation is coming to an end, is a cell leader in the Sughd region. Both of them have been in detention and their cases are in the final stages."

Calling For A Caliphate

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, was established in the 1950s in the Middle East. It has only been known in Central Asia since the mid-1990s.

Representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir say their activities are peaceful and claim they do not engage in political violence, but only instruct and convince Muslims of the need to establish a caliphate.

But the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Russia regard the group as an extremist organization. And hundreds of accused Hizb ut-Tahrir members are now in jails across Central Asia as "religious extremists" who pose a danger to law and order.

Uzbekistan blamed religious extremists for the deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, as well as for the bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara in the spring and summer of 2004. The Uzbek authorities were also quick to accuse Hizb ut-Tahrir of involvement in violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005.

But many human-rights groups are not convinced all those arrested are guilty of trying to overthrow the state. They charge the Uzbek government is cracking down on all forms of political dissent and say even peaceful Muslims practicing their faith outside state-controlled religious establishments risk persecution.

Support On The Rise

Still, despite the jailings, the number of members and sympathizers of Hizb ut-Tahrir seems to be on rise in all the countries of the region.

"Not only is the number of those who join the group growing, so is the number of those who support its ideas," one Uzbek woman who claims to be a member of the group and who has two sons serving jail terms for their involvement told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "Why? Because people want a just system. They want to live in a just and fair society with good governance. Nowadays, there is no justice. Corruption and bribery are everywhere. Unemployment is the people's biggest problem. That's why they read the word of God. Since the seventh century, when Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, lived, there was a caliphate for 14 centuries. It was a just system. I also believe that if people learn these things, they will become more just."

Observers say religious groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, sometimes become an avenue for expressing discontent with government policies in countries where human rights are often violated and economic conditions are hard.

Outlet For Dissent

Hizb ut-Tahrir has been most active and reportedly has the largest number of supporters in Uzbekistan -- even though it is there the group has suffered the harshest crackdowns. Experts say the Hizb ut-Tahrir's success in Uzbekistan is partly due to the lack of a secular platform in the country for expressing dissent.

But the group has also been more active recently in Kyrgyzstan, where room for political opposition has grown after former President Askar Akaev was ousted from power in March 2005.

Michael Hall, the director of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asia Project in Bishkek, told RFE/RL about the reasons behind Hizb ut-Tahrir's support in more open societies like Kyrgyzstan.

"Political expression," Hall said. "Yes, I think that's certainly part of it. But I think the key really is justice, accountability, and fairness. When people feel they don't have enough of these under the current system, it makes them, I think, susceptible to arguments which suggest that a caliphate would provide this kind of accountability, and justice, and fairness. In Kyrgyzstan, where state institutions are very weak, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future, I think this also plays very nicely into the hands of Hizb ut-Tahrir."

Last week, as Kyrgyzstan celebrated Eid Al-Adha, or the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, authorities detained several people in the southern city of Osh and accused them of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Heavy-Handed Authorities

The arrests came as those detained where cooking pilaf, an Uzbek national dish, and attempting to distribute it among the needy and poor, an activity in line with Muslim practice during the holiday.

The detainees denied membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and outraged local people protested against the authorities' actions against what they said were charitable activities.

"The authorities did something that spoiled people's celebratory mood, outraged and insulted them," Rafiq Qori Kamoliddin, a Muslim cleric from Osh, told RFE/RL. "They did it so simply because they don't understand people. It was a serious political mistake. They violated Muslims' rights."

Kamoliddin said this kind of action on the government's part increases sympathy for Hizb ut-Tahrir among ordinary people.

Michael Hall of the ICG said that unless citizens' perceptions of unfair political systems across the region change, support for Hizb ut-Tahrir will continue to grow.

He added that governments' lack of political will and resources for solving problems like unemployment among youth only risk making the problem worse. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on 17 January.)

INTERVIEW WITH UN FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION'S ERWIN NORTHOFF. As reports of the spread of bird flu mount, many have expressed concern about the ability of Central Asian countries to come to grips with the problem. There have also been concerns that the notoriously closed regime in Turkmenistan might be less than forthcoming about any outbreaks there. RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Muhammad Tahir spoke with Erwin Northoff, news coordinator for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on 12 January about the challenges facing Central Asian countries coping with bird flu.

RFE/RL: What is the possibility of any outbreak in Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, since those countries have very close ties with Turkey?

Erwin Northoff: Well, it is very difficult to speculate. The risk is there, and once there is a risk you have to take preparatory measures. And you have to prepare yourselves. This is what we are calling upon countries, governments, Agriculture ministries, veterinary services, and farmers [to do] -- they should know about the risks and the measures they should take to do everything so that whenever there is an outbreak, it should be reported immediately to veterinary services. And they should take and apply measures that are internationally recommended and accepted. The major measures are that, whenever an outbreak occurs, animals should be slaughtered, culled, and -- if and when appropriate -- there should be vaccination also involved in the outbreak areas.

For farmers and people, it is very important to know that whenever they detect sick animals, they should report it; and they should also try to avoid any contact with the sick animal. There is no reason to panic -- that is also important to say. We are still talking about an animal disease. Yes, human beings have died and they have become infected and there is a risk, especially when you get in direct contact with infected or sick animals. So that is something that really needs to be avoided.

RFE/RL: We have received some unconfirmed reports from some parts of Turkmenistan about mass deaths of birds and chickens. Do you as an organization have any information about this?

Northoff: No, I'm not aware of these events or incidents. Whenever it happens that there is a suspected outbreak, the veterinary authorities have to make tests, laboratory tests, and then they find out if they can confirm or not confirm that the deadly bird-flu virus is spreading there. That needs to be done by the authorities and the laboratories in the country together with internationally respected reference laboratories. And then they would also need to inform the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris.

RFE/RL: As you mentioned, they have to take measures against bird flu. Have you heard anything about preparations against possible outbreaks in Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan?

Northoff: I know that countries neighboring Turkey are already taking precautionary measures. They are, for instance, monitoring the movement of animals across borders. There is disinfection going on, so some countries are taking the first measures. I'm not in a position to say what individual countries are doing to be on alert, but there are regional networks where countries are sharing their experiences, and I'm pretty confident that countries are taking the initiative now after the warning was issued.

RFE/RL: So what was the warning?

Northoff: The FAO warned yesterday that there is a high risk that bird flu will become endemic in Turkey -- I'm saying "risk" because we don't have confirmation yet, but the virus is probably widely spread. And so it needs more efforts to combat the disease. We also issued a statement saying that neighboring countries should be on high alert and should take appropriate measures and prepare themselves for possible outbreaks in their poultry flock.

RFE/RL: Has your organization tried to approach those countries about taking any measures after issuing the statement you mentioned?

Northoff: We have, for several months, said that bird flu is an international problem and it needs an international response and that countries should be aware and be prepared. It proves now that the virus seems to spread and that there is a need for countries to get ready and to face this challenge. So for several months we have been saying -- and we have also developed international guidelines and we are offering advice -- to countries to get prepared and to face this challenge. (Originally published on 16 January.)

UZBEK HUMAN-RIGHTS ACTIVIST REPORTEDLY SENTENCED IN SECRET TRIAL. More than 150 people have been convicted so far in Uzbekistan in connection with the mass violence in the eastern city of Andijon in May. Most of the trials have been held behind closed doors. Saidjahon Zainabiddinov, a human-rights activist from Andijon and an apparent witness of the violence, is among the defendants. He was arrested in the aftermath the Andijon demonstrations and some reports suggest he has already been sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

Zainabiddinov, head of the Andijon-based Appelyatsiya (Appeal) rights group, monitored the trial of the 23 businessmen that led to the 13 May uprising.

The 52-year-old became well-known as he gave numerous interviews to international media outlets, including RFE/RL. He spoke out condemning the Uzbek government troops' violent actions against protesters as "genocide" and giving a far higher death toll than the government's figure. A week later, he was arrested.

A spokesman for Uzbekistan's National Security Service, Olimjon Turakulov, said at the time that Zainabiddinov was involved in the planning of the uprising.

Zainabiddinov's family members have received little information about his case. Last week, they learned the trial had already started near Tashkent.

His 75-year-old mother was the only person allowed to attend hearings. However, she was unable to do so as the family has received no information about the location of the trial.

Zainabiddinov's son Ilhomjon said his grandmother went to several regional courts near Tashkent and to the city police department in quest for her son, but to no avail. "My grandmother went to Quyi-chirchiq regional court [near Tashkent]. But there were no hearings held there," he said. "She asked about a judge whose name was mentioned in a letter [we received] from a bar association. They said he would be in next day. She went there next day and was told the judge went on vacation. Others said there was no trial."

Zainabiddinov's government-appointed lawyer, Mavluda Akhmedova, refused to speak to RFE/RL.

Surat Ikramov, a Tashkent-based independent human-rights activist, has also been searching for Zainabiddinov. He told RFE/RL that he went to a regional court near Tashkent where another closed trial of 15 people was being held on 12 January.

"I went there and tried to find out whether Saidjahon was among the defendants," Ikramov said. "But it was impossible as police cordoned off the court building. However, I got information from another source that the trial of Saidjahon Zainabiddinov had already finished and he was sentenced to seven years in prison. But this information has yet to be confirmed."

More than 150 people have been convicted in Uzbekistan in connection with the Andijon violence. All but one of the trials have been held behind closed doors.

Foreign journalists accredited by the Uzbek Foreign Ministry were allowed to make a single visit to one of the closed-door hearings in early December, following criticism by human-rights watchdogs.

Uzbek authorities deny that hearings have been held behind closed doors, saying only trials of those charged with sexual crimes or concerning state secrets are closed.

Svetlana Ortiqova, a spokeswoman for Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General's Office, reiterated that point in an interview with RFE/RL. Concerning Zainabiddinov's trial, she said: "All trials are open. At least, his mother is present, right? If the trial were closed, his mother would not have been let in the courtroom. You see, the trial is not something where everyone who wants to attend can do so. The chief judge decides who can attend the hearing because different issues may be discussed, different situation may come up."

Human-rights watchdogs and foreign governments have criticized the arrest of Zainabiddinov. Maisy Weicherding, a London-based Central Asia researcher with Amnesty International, told RFE/RL that the report of a seven-year prison sentence, if true, is "shocking."

"I've been worried that this might happen because, you know, there were all these trials in December that were held in secret with no one allowed access and no names of defendants made public," Weicherding said. "So, I think my fear was that Saidjahon was actually amongst some of those defendants. I am obviously shocked by a sentence of seven years. We believe that he should be released unconditionally because we believe he is a prisoner of conscience."

New York-based Human Right Watch condemned the arrest and has called on the international community to put pressure on the Uzbek government to ensure the safety of Zainabiddinov and other human-rights activists who could be subject to retribution.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking soon after the first post-Andijon arrests, called for the release of those held unless there is credible evidence of criminal actions. "Those arrested must be given due process in accordance with international standards including credible evidence of criminal behavior for them to continue to be imprisoned," he said. "If such evidence is not forthcoming, those detained should be released."

The UN's High Commissioner on Human Rights criticized Uzbekistan's practice of closed trials and said in late December that the Andijon trials should be observed by international monitors to ensure that the rights of defendants are not violated.

Rights watchdogs say torture is a widespread practice in Uzbekistan's prisons and detention facilities. Amnesty's Weicherding said Zainabiddinov has likely been ill-treated in detention.

Zainabiddinov's son Ilhomjon told RFE/RL about the only time he saw his father in late July, after the arrest. "We contacted all institutions in search of [my father]. Then, we got an unexpected phone call from Tashkent. A man introduced himself as an investigator from MVD [Interior Ministry] and said the trial was due to start in few days. He asked me to bring my father's suit and some food. I took the suit, food and went to Tashkent. I was told to go to MVD. So I did. My father was in the MVD basement. We went some six floors down on the elevator. That was the last time I saw him. He looked thinner than usual," Ilhomjon said.

Meanwhile, in another closed trial, five members of the Birlik unregistered opposition party were sentenced to various prison terms on 12 January. They were detained after the Andijon bloodshed and accused of involvement in the uprising. Four of them were released on suspended sentence. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 13 January.)