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Central Asia Report: May 19, 2006

19 May 2006, Volume 6, Number 15

WEEK AT A GLANCE. (May 8-14, 2006) The Kazakh Journalists Union issued a statement demanding the resignation of Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev. The union, led by Asar Party Chairwoman Darigha Nazarbaeva, who is also President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, called Ertysbaev "unfit to hold the post" and blasted him for "authoritarian methods" and "censorship." Ertysbaev has recently spoken of a need to restore full state control over the Khabar television channel, which is currently controlled by Nazarbaeva. Ertysbaev brushed off the demand for his resignation. Elsewhere, a court sentenced retired National Security Service Colonel Arat Narmanbetov to one year in prison for slander. Narmanbetov had accused First Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev -- the husband of Darigha Nazarbaeva -- of involvement in the February killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev.

Kyrgyzstan suffered a violent week. First, reputed crime boss and would-be parliamentary deputy Ryspek Akmatbaev was gunned down in broad daylight outside Bishkek. He had recently won a by-election to parliament, but the Central Election Commission refused to endorse his victory pending an appeal on Akmatbaev's recent acquittal on murder charges. Then, on May 12, at least 13 people were killed when a group of armed men made an illegal incursion from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan's Batken Province. The men killed three border guards in Tajikistan and a customs official and civilian in Kyrgyzstan before Kyrgyz security forces killed four intruders and captured one, losing four of their own men in the operation. Kyrgyz and Tajik officials pointed to the possible involvement of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. On the political front, President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced a government reshuffle. Former Prosecutor-General Busurmankul Tabaldiev replaced Tashtemir Aitbaev as head of the National Security Service, Deputy Prime Minister Adakhan Madumarov replaced Dastan Sarygulov as state secretary, Daniyar Usenov replaced Medetbek Kerimkulov as first deputy prime minister, and Usen Sydykov was transferred from his post as head of the presidential administration to a position as a presidential adviser.

An official in the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office said that three police officers were arrested in connection with the death of Sadullo Marufov, a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), who died in police custody on May 4. The IRP later issued a statement demanding a thorough investigation. France confirmed that it will bolster the 125 personnel and two military-transport aircraft it maintains in Tajikistan with three Mirage fighter jets and an additional group of pilots and technical staff. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher met with President Imomali Rakhmonov. Boucher stressed that "U.S. companies are already working on the issue of participation in hydroenergy projects" in Tajikistan, adding that "this will also help Afghanistan."

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov kept up a steady pace of staff changes, removing Jumaniyaz Annaorazov as head of Turkmenistan's central bank and replacing him with Geldimurat Abilov. Niyazov also sacked Construction Minister Batyr Gaipov. Ashgabat Mayor Orazmurad Esenov will replace Gaipov while retaining his post as mayor of the capital. Against this backdrop, Niyazov told a cabinet meeting that officials should be given a tour of prisons before their appointment to top posts so that they know what awaits them if they engage in corrupt practices. On a lighter note, Niyazov invited ministers to the opening of a newly completed skating rink and promised to teach them how to skate.

Uzbekistan marked the one-year anniversary of the violence in Andijon. While Western media highlighted allegations that Uzbek security forces massacred hundreds of demonstrators, President Islam Karimov held a chummy meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, with Karimov offering Russian companies the "tastiest morsels" in upcoming Uzbek privatizations. For its part, the United States renewed its call for the Uzbek government "to allow for a full, credible and transparent international investigation into Andijon." On the home front, Karimov established a $1 billion state fund for reconstruction and development. The Uzbek president also warned that "the huge efforts that are being made to justify possible strikes on nuclear or some other vital facilities in Iran -- what is more, with the use of nuclear weapons -- are all mind-boggling."

KYRGYZSTAN: UZBEK EXILES STAGE ANDIJON RALLY. A group of some 60 people gathered on May 13 in the Kyrgyz border town of Kara-Suu, across the canal from Uzbekistan, to mark the first anniversary of the bloodshed in Andijon. The unsanctioned demonstration called on the world not to forget those who were killed in the eastern Uzbek city last year and to hold Uzbek President Islam Karimov responsible for the bloodshed.

Isroiljon Kholdarov of the Uzbek opposition party Erk, now a refugee in Kyrgyzstan, was one of the organizers of the rally. After police broke up the demonstration, he recounted what had happened.

"We held a small action some 50 meters from the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border to mark the Andijon events," Kholdarov said. "We recalled last year's Andijon events and that no one should forget what happened, and we demanded an end to the dictator [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov. For about 25 minutes we held up banners. About 60 or 70 people were there and people came from the Kara-Suu bazaar to read our banners. About 60 or 70 people more gathered around us and those who came from Uzbekistan to the bazaar also read our banners."

Members of Erk and other Uzbek opposition activists from the Birlik movement and Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) party organized the demonstration. All are now refugees in Kyrgyzstan who fled Uzbekistan in the wake of the Andijon events when the Uzbek government started a crackdown.

These opposition groups dispute the government's version of the Andijon events, according to which it was an attempt by Islamic militants to overthrow the government during which 187 people were killed when troops opened fire on protesters.

The Kara-Suu rally was held despite warnings from Kyrgyz officials and local and international refugee organizations that the Uzbek activists should not hold any political rallies.

"We will return," said Jamshed Mukhtarov of the Ozod Dehqonlar. "Our action was stopped and Kyrgyz security forces warned us, and the [nongovernmental organization] Adolat and the UNHCR also warned us through official letters that if we demonstrated they would deport us or we would face administrative punishment. They told us this already and told us our lives were in danger. Therefore I ask you and the world to find out what's happening to us."

In the morning, leaflets appeared in Kara-Suu also calling on the Uzbek people not to forget what happened in Andijon last year. The leaflets did remind people at the bazaar about Andijon. There was no shortage of opinions about Andijon today in the stalls and at the tables in the bazaar.

"Poor people don't take up arms," one Uzbek trader said. "This was the people at the top, because the average person doesn't need power. For that, you need a good head and an ideology to rule. The powerful people couldn't share power. They got money for some kind of military things, but they took it for themselves."

Another young man said Uzbek media misreported the Andijon events, but he said that no one was fooled by those reports.

"For years now Uzbek television has been telling lies. In fact, it didn't happen that way," the young man said. "We didn't see it, but we heard about it. They tortured people there and shot people. And Uzbek television, as always, didn't tell the truth just like they don't tell the truth about what's happening outside the country and they never give information that contradicts the government."

For one woman selling items at the bazaar, the Andijon events were a personal tragedy. She explained that her son was going to passport control in Andijon to pick up his father's passport. While her son was there someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the building and her son was burned.

"He went the passport control and was burned on his back, legs and an arm," she said. "For that, they put him in jail for four years. He is now in the Navoi prison."

The demonstration and leaflets succeeded in reminding the people at the Kara-Suu bazaar today about what happened last year. But no one believed there would be any significant changes in the situation across the border in Uzbekistan any time soon. (By Bruce Pannier. Elmurad Jusupaliev of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report. Published on May 13, 2006.)

KYRGYZSTAN: OFFICIALS HEAD OFF UZBEK REFUGEES' RALLY PLANS. Uzbek opposition figures who fled to Kyrgyzstan after last year's violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon were thwarted their attempts to mark the anniversary with rallies. Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies confiscated passports and other documents from the organizers after learning of the plans. Even the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned the Uzbeks against holding any protests.

Jamshed Mukhtarov stands in a dark room and dejectedly unfurls banners condemning events last year in Andijon, when Uzbek authorities opened fire on demonstrators. Official figures suggest that 187 people were killed in all, but eyewitnesses and rights group suggest several times that number died.

Mukhtarov's banners urge the international community not to forget what happened, and they demand justice. But no one is likely to see these banners, as Mukhtarov and his opposition colleagues are being forced to abandon their planned demonstrations today and tomorrow.

"On May 10, one of our refugees, Isroiljon Kholdarov, was called by the local branch of the Interior Ministry for a discussion, but they didn't hold any talks," Mukhtarov said. "They just kept him there for a long time and told him not to hold any [political] activities."

This young activist from the opposition Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) party fled to Kyrgyzstan with his family several months ago. Uzbeks from other opposition groups -- like the Erk Democratic Party and the Birlik movement -- have trickled across the border in groups of two or three since the Andijon tragedy.

Uzbek authorities blame Islamic militants for the violence in Andijon, claiming government troops resisted an attempted coup when they fired on crowds. Witnesses and rights groups accuse the Uzbek government of a massacre that left hundreds of civilians dead.

But in the wake of Andijon, a crackdown has targeted the Uzbek political opposition. Many political activists from the Uzbek region of the Ferghana Valley have fled to Kyrgyzstan.

Members of Erk, Birlik, Ozod Dehqonlar, and other Uzbek opposition groups were planning commemorative rallies outside the local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Russian consulate in Osh.

But after word of those plans got out, Kyrgyz authorities summoned organizers -- all of them Uzbek refugees -- to warn them against doing so.

A small group of Uzbek opposition activists held a 30-minute protest outside the Osh office of the UNHCR on May 11. They were invited inside and given a letter discouraging "all Uzbek citizens seeking asylum" from holding any unsanctioned demonstrations.

UNHCR officials in Osh were not immediately available for comment.

The 1954 UN convention relating to the status of refugees says that "every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself." The document demands specifically that refugees conform to such countries' laws and regulations, "as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order."

The would-be organizers appeared to be heeding those calls. But Mukhtarov noted that not everyone heard about the cancellation, and people wanting to participate were trickling in.

"Today, May 12, people who wanted to join our protest have been coming to our temporary office since morning," he said. "It seems that many people planned to participate in the action. I was happy that many human rights defenders wanted to join and support us."

Mukhtarov said those hopefuls included rights defenders from Kyrgyzstan.

The Uzbek refugees are in a sensitive legal position. They called off not only today's planned rallies but also another set for May 13 in the border town of Kara-Suu, which hundreds of Uzbek refugees passed through last year.

"Unfortunately, we cannot hold a protest tomorrow because, according to Kyrgyz law, we don't have the right to stage political actions," Mukhtarov said. "According to Kyrgyz law and the UNHCR, refugees cannot participate in any political meetings or protests."

Mukhtarov and other organizers were summoned today to the Immigration Department in Osh. Mukhtarov said he expected authorities there to ask Uzbeks to sign letters pledging not to hold any political rallies as long as they are in Kyrgyzstan. (By Bruce Pannier. Published on May 12, 2006.)

UZBEKISTAN: EXILED ACTIVISTS URGE WORLD TO REMEMBER ANDIJON. Uzbek authorities cracked down on more than just the extremists they blamed for provoking the tragedy in Andijon in May 2005. They also hounded the political opposition and local human-rights advocates seeking clues to what had happened. The result was a sudden flow of refugees to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Some of those who left are organizing a demonstration in Kyrgyzstan's second city, Osh, on May 12.

Abdujalil lives off an alleyway on the outskirts of this Kyrgyz city. Nearly 60, he roams the barren garden outside a modest home with little to occupy his time. He has little to eat and virtually no money for food. The trip from here to his Uzbek hometown of Kokand is less than an hour's drive.

But it might as well be a lifetime.

Abdujalil fled Uzbekistan after the May 2005 bloodshed when troops in the eastern city of Andijon opened fire on demonstrators. At the time, he was co-chairman of the Erk Democratic Party in nearby Kokand. He and others began investigating what happened in Andijon -- including the numbers of killed or missing.

Official Retribution?

Abdujalil says that within two months -- in early July -- the co-chairman of another opposition group, Birlik, had been summoned by authorities, arrested, and jailed. So when he was similarly summoned, he says he declined the invitation.

"On July 15, [law-enforcement authorities] summoned me to a meeting," Abdujalil recounts. "I didn't go and [instead] went somewhere else. I was away on July 16 and 17, and on July 18, I arrived in Kyrgyzstan."

He says Uzbek authorities have pressured his family ever since -- so much so that he doesn't even try to telephone his relatives any more. Abdujalil describes "feeling [those relatives] trembling" on the other end of the line whenever he called.

Refusing To Forget

He and other leaders from Erk and Birlik have formed a group they call the People's Committee for the Salvation of Uzbekistan (KNSU). They are organizing a rally for May 12 outside the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office and Russian consulate in Osh to remind people of what happened in Andijon.

Toghawai Razzakov is a human-rights defender, a member of Birlik, and an Uzbek refugee in Kyrgyzstan. He arrived in Osh only recently, and says authorities in Andijon were trying to erase the painful memory of what happened as the anniversary approached.

"You see, no one [in Uzbekistan] will mark May 13," Razzakov says. "Quite the opposite. [Authorities] have begun holding concerts of Andijon performers in the stadium. They want to brainwash the youth [and] the people, and turn a day of sorrow into a holiday."

Israiljon Kholdarov, the chairman of the Erk party's chapter in Andijon Province, is another recent arrival in Kyrgyzstan. He says authorities in Andijon have warned relatives of those killed last year to limit traditional ceremonies for the dead to strictly private affairs.

"According to Uzbek custom, there is a wake on the first anniversary of a relative's death," Kholdarov says. "There are two [security-service] officers and one militiaman outside the homes of every family in which a relative died [last year in Andijon]. They are telling the families not to invite people to [mark] the anniversary, and the mahalla (neighborhood) leaders are supporting it."

Abdujalil, Kholdarov, Razzakov, and other Uzbek opposition activists now in Kyrgyzstan all say they want to go home. But they vow not to return as long as President Islam Karimov remains in power. They say they advocate peaceful change in government and are eagerly awaiting that day.

But for the moment, their efforts are aimed at ensuring that the world remembers what happened in Andijon one year ago.

(By Bruce Pannier. Elmurad Jusupaliev of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report. Published on May 12, 2006.)

KYRGYZSTAN: IMAM EXTENDS WELCOME TO HIZB UT-TAHRIR. Kyrgyz imam Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin is an exception among the Muslim prayer leaders of Central Asia. In a region where many states ban the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Kamoluddin allows its members to pray at his mosque. He is by most accounts the only imam in Central Asia to be so bold.

Hizb ut-Tahrir's outspoken advocacy of the overthrow of secular governments to create an Islamic caliphate has won it few friends among Central Asian governments. The group insists it seeks change through peaceful means.

But thousands of its supporters are jailed in Uzbekistan, and hundreds more are incarcerated in Tajikistan. A small but growing number of Hizb ut-Tahrir followers are imprisoned in Kazakhstan. The charges often stem from alleged plans to overthrow those respective governments.

A Call For Inclusion

Kamoluddin acknowledges that many of the Hizb ut-Tahrir praying at his mosque come from Uzbekistan, whose hard-line government regards them as enemies of the state.

"It is true that at our mosque, compared with other mosques, many Hizb ut-Tahrir members come to pray," Kamoluddin said. "That information is correct. It is also true that in Kyrgyzstan, [Hizb ut-Tahrir] first appeared in Kara-Suu."

Kara-Suu is a divided town that straddles a river on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. It served briefly as a gateway for Uzbeks fleeing the violent crackdown in nearby Andijon one year ago, and has since blossomed into a bustling throughway for cross-border trade.

Kamoluddin says that the bans imposed on Hizb ut-Tahrir in the rest of Central Asia should not exclude its followers from worshipping in Kyrgyzstan -- at his or any other mosque.

"According to democratic principles, we don't have the right to turn them out," Kamoluddin said. "And even in [terms of] religious understanding, we don't have the right to throw them out because even our Prophet never did this. There were people with misguided faiths during the time of the Prophet. He knew them all, knew their names, but he never turned them away. On the contrary, he prayed for them."

Inclusion, But No Recruiting

Kamoluddin is quick to say that he does not support Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideology, and has no interest in joining. But he is sympathetic to their plight as fervent Muslims.

"Firstly, I am not a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir," he said. "I don't read their literature, and don't want to [read it]. There have been offers made to my family -- to my sons and daughters -- from Hizb ut-Tahrir, but I strictly forbid them [from joining]. But I also do not support the view that Hizb ut-Tahrir are terrorists, enemies of the government, or enemies of the people. And to those who say they aren't Muslims -- they are Muslims. They are a particular group, but they want Islam and they serve Islam."

"You don't need to battle Hizb ut-Tahrir with this kind of material provocation," he added. "Instead, you need to gather scholars and religious leaders and start an intellectual discussion. In front of the people, [for instance] on television, [Hizb ut-Tahrir] should have been told, 'Your mistakes are this and this.'"

The imam insists that while he allows Hizb ut-Tahrir members to pray in his mosque, he does not allow them to use their presence as a recruiting opportunity.

"If any Hizb ut-Tahrir member brings even one leaflet and gives it to even one person to read -- that would be propaganda," he said.

As Kamoluddin returns to his demanding schedule of meetings with the faithful, he notes that he has voiced his opinions on allowing Hizb ut-Tahrir to pray to Kyrgyzstan's government and religious leaders. And -- at least for now -- he says they are satisfied with his explanation.

(By Bruce Pannier. Elmurad Jusupaliev and Oktambek Karimov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report. Originally published on May 12, 2006.)

UZBEKISTAN: A BLOODY MIX OF SOCIAL UNREST AND A POWER STRUGGLE? Eyewitnesses of the bloodshed in Andijon suggest, at a European Parliament roundtable, that a rivalry between ruling clans helped transform a nonreligious, pro-democracy demonstration into a bloodbath.

Just as there is uncertainty about how many people died when Uzbek forces broke up demonstrations in Andijon, there is little certainty about what exactly happened before and during the crackdown and about the nature of unrest.

This gap in knowledge was one of the reasons why, on May 11, the European Parliament marked last year's bloody events in eastern Uzbekistan with a roundtable. It was a discussion that brought together a number of people who attended the demonstrations in Andijon and witnessed the subsequent bloodshed.

One of them, the journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, recalls that a convoy of armored personnel carriers (APCs) entered Andijon's central Bobur Square five hours into a massive demonstration and "without warning, the soldiers in the APCs opened fire on the crowd. I was able to escape from the square after the third attack by APCs. Those APCs did not stop. They were moving slowly on the square and shooting. They were killing one row of protesters after another."

The crackdown followed weeks of public protests against the trial of 23 local businessmen. The Uzbek government claimed that the bloodshed was the work of Islamic terrorists seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate in Uzbekistan, but that is an assertion that Bukharbaeva dismisses as bogus.

"I said -- and it is my position, I have no doubts about it -- that it was a pro-democratic uprising of the city triggered by unfair trial of well-known and influential businessmen in Andijon," she told RFE/RL.

Bukharbaeva's take on the events was supported by other roundtable participants.

In the view of the Europe director for Human Rights Watch, Lotte Leicht, their accounts warrant the crackdown being described as a massacre and genocide against the Uzbek people.

The crackdown was not the only violence that Andijon saw in those few, ultimately fateful days. Prior to the arrival of thousands of government troops, unidentified attackers had -- on the night of May 12-13 -- seized a police station, a military garrison, and the prison in which the 23 businessmen were locked up.

These events have been seized on by the Uzbek government as evidence that it faced an insurgency in Andijon.

However, some participants at the roundtable believe the Uzbek authorities -- or one part of it -- orchestrated the violence that preceded the crackdown, Vitaly Volkov, a Central Asia program correspondent for the German news agency Deutsche Welle, called the attack on the prison a "provocation."

"Information we acquired from the sources in the Uzbek SNB," the secret service, indicates that "the crowd that came to the prison was led by officers of the local SNB who used to oversee institutions such as prisons," Volkov told RFE/RL. Approached by their former supervisors, the prison guards had simply opened the prison gates.

Volkov believes the SNB then staged an assault in order to compromise the Interior Ministry. There is, he argues, a longstanding rivalry between the SNB and the Interior Ministry, whose heads represent two influential clans competing for political power in the country.

Several police officers and prison guards were sentenced to prison last year in cases heard behind closed doors. In addition, Uzbek President Islam Karimov dismissed Interior Minister Zakirjon Almatov, ostensibly on health grounds. It was Almatov who negotiated with protesters after they seized the regional administration building (hokimiyat), just before the government forces entered Bobur Square on May 13.

Journalist Bukharbaeva concedes that some of the people who attacked the prison were probably among those who seized the administration building the next day. However, she too believes they had taken part in the initial attack at the instigation of the SNB.

"When we interviewed people in the hokimiyat on May 13, they admitted that had participated in the attack of the police station and the military garrison, had obtained weapons there, and were also present during the prison assault," she says. "They didn't tell us that they had been encouraged to do so by law-enforcement agencies. But when we interviewed them two days earlier, on May 11 -- and we have audio -- they said the special services had been trying to convince them to start violence earlier."

Uzbek authorities claim that the attackers were Islamic terrorists trained abroad, and that they, along with the protesters, shouted Islamic slogans.

That account is, however, challenged by German freelance reporter Marcus Bensmann, who monitored the trials of the 23 businessmen and witnessed the shootings on May 13.

"I didn't see any trained mujahedin that day. And I didn't [hear] any outcry of 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is Great'] demanding an Islamic state," he said.

No independent probe has ever been held to determine what happened on the night of May 12-13. Calls for an independent report were raised once again at the roundtable by a number of prominent nongovernmental organizations, the International Crisis Group (ICG), Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Institute.

Rights activists also called on Europe to take more action, by imposing a visa ban on President Karimov and his family, the country's prosecutor-general, and justice minister and freezing the assets of top Uzbek officials.

The European Union introduced an arms embargo and last autumn barred 12 top security officials from entering its 25 member states.

Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of the unregistered Uzbek Erk (Freedom) democratic party, welcomed the roundtable, saying this was just the first of a series of Andijon-related events to be organized by the European Parliament and that this dialogue will help define Europe's future position toward Karimov's regime.

"I am absolutely sure that no dialogue is possible with the current regime," Solih said. "So what can be done? Pressure should be strengthened."

"It is Karimov who has isolated Uzbekistan," Solih said. "Despite everything, the European Parliament is saying it wants a dialogue."

Uzbek Embassy officials were invited to the event and were included on the list of speakers, alongside eyewitnesses, human rights groups, European officials, and members of the Uzbek opposition. However, no Uzbek officials showed up.

(By Gulnoza Saidazimova. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Shukhrat Babajanov contributed to this report from Brussels. Published on May 11, 2006.)