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Central Asia Report: January 20, 2005

20 January 2005, Volume 5, Number 2

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Kazakhstan, where he met with President Nursultan Nazarbaev to discuss energy cooperation and border issues in the lead-up to President Nazarbaev's 17-18 January visit to Moscow to sign a border-delimitation agreement. On the energy front, Nazarbaev said that he supports increasing the capacity of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium to 67 million tons a year. The Kazakh president also ordered an inquiry into an incident on the Kazakh-Uzbek border in which Kazakh border guards shot an Uzbek citizen dead during an alleged smuggling attempt. Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev said that no withdrawal of Kazakhstan's 27 peacekeepers from Iraq is under discussion despite the recent death of a Kazakh officer in Iraq in a munitions incident. And Kazakhstan's opposition continued to express its outrage over a 6 January court ruling that the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan should be dissolved for incitement after the party called for civil disobedience in a December statement.

Former Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Rosa Otunbaeva, now co-chair of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt, lost an appeal to overturn a 6 January decision by a district election commission that barred her from running in 27 February parliamentary elections. The commission ruled that Otunbaeva has not resided in Kyrgyzstan for the last for years; Otunbaeva has argued that as a diplomat who served abroad, she should be allowed to run under the principle of extraterritoriality. Against a backdrop of protests over Otunbaeva's thwarted run for parliament, President Askar Akaev lashed out at the opposition, saying, "Our homegrown provocateurs now have skilled coaches who have learned how to use provocations...." Meanwhile, rumors flew over the transcript of an alleged "secret" government meeting at which Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev supposedly urged the physical liquidation of opposition figures. Tanaev dismissed the transcript as a fake. Elsewhere, the president signed a decree extending a death-penalty moratorium until the end of 2005 amid plans to remove the death penalty once and for all from Kyrgyzstan's Criminal Code.

Tajikistan's Central Election Commission (CEC) began to register candidates for 27 February parliamentary elections. One would-be candidate who will not be running is Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the head of the Democratic Party. Currently jailed in Moscow after being arrested there in December at the request of Tajik authorities, Iskandarov was barred from running by the CEC because of the embezzlement charges he faces at home. Elsewhere, the Economy Ministry reported that GDP rose 10.3 percent to just over $2 billion in 2004. The Drug Control Agency opened a second office in Afghanistan. And Iran, Tajikistan, and Russia signed protocols for Russia and Iran to complete the construction of the Sangtuda-1 and Sangtuda-2 hydropower plants.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov met with Riaz Khokhar, Pakistan's foreign secretary and special envoy of President Pervez Musharraf. Days later, the Turkmen government announced in a press release that the British company Penspen has completed a feasibility study of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline and presented it to the energy ministers of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. The planned 1,680-kilometer gas pipeline bringing gas from Turkmenistan to the Indian-Pakistani border will cost $3.3 billion and have an annual transport capacity of 33 billion cubic meters. According to the government press release, the TAP steering committee will discuss it at a February meeting in Islamabad.

Uzbek authorities agreed to the participation of outside experts and Uzbek human rights activists in the investigation of torture allegations surrounding the suspicious death of an imprisoned Hizb ut-Tahrir member. The unregistered opposition parties Erk (Freedom) and Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers) demonstrated outside the Prosecutor-General's Office demanding the release of political prisoners. And President Islam Karimov, congratulating members of the armed forces on 13 January in honor of Homeland Defenders' Day, voiced his support for preemptive strikes to "neutralize armed attacks by international terrorists and the centers that direct them."

UZBEK GOVERNMENT ALLOWS MONITORS IN TORTURE PROBE... Two men died in police custody in Uzbekistan on 2 January. Samandar Umarov was a prisoner serving a 17-year sentence for being a member of the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Rayim Quldoshev was a resident of Jizzakh called in for questioning after a dispute that occurred on New Year's Eve. Very different in their particulars, the two cases share a crucial common element: allegations that both men died as a result of physical abuse.

Following a precedent established in the summer of 2004, the Uzbek government has agreed to have independent observers monitor an investigation of Umarov's death. Meanwhile, the unanswered questions about Quldoshev's death underscore the extent of a problem that refuses to go away.

Nearing A Close

Samandar Umarov was imprisoned in connection with the February 1999 explosions that rocked the Uzbek capital Tashkent. He was convicted on a number of charges, including attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, and was serving his sentence at the Navoi prison camp in central Uzbekistan. A father of two, Samandar Umarov, 35, died on 2 January. The official cause of death was said to be a stroke, although Uzbek human rights groups allege that Umarov died as the result of torture.

"A few days after the incident, the Uzbek government approached the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, asking it to observe an official investigation and agreeing to the participation of Uzbek human rights defenders and foreign specialists, Freedom House Senior Program Officer Margarita Assenova told RFE/RL on 12 January (see related story below). The Uzbek observers chosen were Abdusalom Ergashev, a specialist on religious rights, and Vohid Karimov, a medical doctor. The outside experts chosen were Ronald Suarez, chief medical examiner of Morris County, New Jersey, and Drago Kos, a criminal investigator from Slovenia and chairman of the Council of Europe's anticorruption commission. The Polish, Swiss, and U.S. embassies were also to monitor the investigation's progress.

Freedom House representatives met with a government commission chaired by Erkin Yuldashev of the Prosecutor-General's Office on 11 January. Participants agreed to make the investigation's results public, preferably in a news conference that would include members of the government commission as well as Uzbek and foreign observers. The observers received a briefing from senior officials in Uzbekistan's penal system led by Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov. Interior Minister Zokir Almatov assured the observers that they would have unrestricted access to the government commission's work.

A New Death In Custody

Against this backdrop, allegations of mistreatment emerged in the death of 32-year-old Rayim Quldoshev. Quldoshev died in police custody in Jizzakh on 2 January, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 12 January. Quldoshev's misfortunes began on 31 December, when he agreed to transport three or four individuals in his car. A dispute developed, and Quldoshev's passengers subsequently filed a complaint with the police in Jizzakh.

Quldoshev was called in for questioning at 10 a.m. on 2 January. Four hours later, he was dead. A heart attack was listed as the official cause of death, but Bakhtiyor Hamroev, head of the local branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL: "We don't believe the conclusion. According to our information, Rayim died after a blow to the chest while he was being interrogated by four policemen."

Another account on an Uzbek opposition website suggested that Quldoshev might have suffocated when police put a plastic bag over his head. Jizzakh police chief Olim Qosimov told the BBC that a criminal case has been opened in the wake of the incident, but he insisted that Quldoshev's death did not result from torture.

The official decision to conduct an investigation with the participation of outside observers comes after a similar inquiry examined the death of murder suspect Andrei Shelkovenko in 2004. That investigation found no evidence of torture.

Keeping The Peace?

The Umarov case breaks new ground, since he was a convicted member of an Islamist group the Uzbek government views as a dangerous enemy of the state. Critics have argued, however, that it is the violent persecution of suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir members that ensures the government of Islam Karimov a steady supply of new enemies. This dispute has often set the terms of the debate over police brutality and torture in Uzbekistan, pitting Karimov's foes, who believe that the only real solution is the removal of the current administration, against the government and its supporters, who insist that tough methods are needed to fight the extremist threat.

For the vast majority of ordinary Uzbek citizens who are neither high-ranking officials nor active opponents of the government, the issue of police brutality and torture raises a much less theoretical question: Do the country's law-enforcement organs inspire respect as upholders of justice or fear as practitioners of torture? This is the question that UN special rapporteur on torture Theo van Boven raised when he dubbed torture in Uzbek prisons "systematic" in a widely noted 2002 report. And it is the specter that hangs over the allegations of mistreatment in the Quldoshev case. (Daniel Kimmage)

...BUT UZBEK RIGHTS ACTIVISTS REJECT U.S. NGO'S FINDINGS. The independent investigation into Umarov's death led by the U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House with the cooperation of the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office announced its findings on 17 January. Their conclusions, as presented by U.S. forensic pathologist Ronald Suarez, were largely the same as the official version. "The death of Mr. Umarov on 2 January 2005 did not occur as a result of unnatural causes," Suarez said. "That is, it did not occur as a result of trauma."

Suarez said the Freedom House team conducted a comprehensive investigation but did not examine the dead man's body. Umarov's relatives refused to have the body exhumed, citing religious reasons.

Mjusa Sever, Freedom House's representative in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL that the investigation was based on a review of documents provided by Uzbek forensic officials. The team also examined tissue samples taken from Umarov's body before his burial.

"The first autopsy [conducted by Uzbek experts] -- unlike the previous cases we would deal with -- was done very well according to Western standards. It wasn't just looking for the immediate cause of death, but it was also a procedure that excluded any other kind of trauma. [It also included] taking all the necessary samples to look into possible poisoning, to look into changes in tissues. All the laboratory tests were done and we were given all the samples in order to repeat the laboratory tests," Sever said.

But family members and others have criticized the Freedom House findings as sloppy and incorrect. Human rights activist Surat Ikramov said anyone who saw the body would conclude that Umarov died not of natural causes, but from sustained torture.

"This is an absolutely wrong conclusion and it goes absolutely against the law. Our organization was first to provide information on Umarov's death. I personally went to his family's house and collected all the photos. His parents and family gave interviews to journalists. From the photograph of the body [the cause of his death] is obvious. His body was not exhumed. I don't know how the examination could provide a conclusion without exhumation," Ikramov said.

Umarov's older sister, Yashnar, said her brother's body was returned wrapped in a blanket and still oozing blood. A second relative also said there were clear signs Umarov had been tortured. "There was blood everywhere, his jaw was broken, and face damaged severely," his sister said. "We saw that sides of his body were bruised." The relative added: "Toenails and fingernails were pulled out. Of course, one dies if nails are pulled out."

Yashnar Umarova said the police who delivered her brother's body said an autopsy had already been conducted. They refused to present any official documents to the family, and pressed them to bury the body as soon as possible. During Umarov's funeral, relatives said the area was surrounded by large groups of policemen in order to prevent any independent observers from witnessing the body.

But representatives from three Uzbek rights groups did manage to see the body. They concluded Umarov had been tortured to death, and called for an independent investigation.

Mjusa Sever of Freedom House denied Umarov's nails had been pulled out, and said his family members had simply responded to stitches they saw on the body -- a result of the autopsy.

Vitalii Ponomarev, the head of the Central Asia Program of the Moscow-based Memorial human rights organization, told RFE/RL that since 1999, more than 100 Uzbek inmates have died in prison as an apparent result of torture. "We have information including the family names of 100 people," he said. "Seventeen of them died during pretrial incarceration, and 83 in prison camps. I believe this information is not complete and the general number may be as high as 300 persons."

Ponomarev said Umarov's case is one of very few to attract international attention. "Almost in all the cases of death, fake documents were made up that said the death was due to natural causes," he said. "In most cases, however, there were signs of torture on the bodies. Unfortunately, very few cases attracted international attention and few of those guilty of the torture were charged and tried."

This is only the second time an independent investigation has upheld the official version that an inmate's death was a result of natural causes, not of torture, which Western rights groups have said is systemic in Uzbek prisons. But observers say this case is particularly significant because it involves an alleged member of Hizb ut-Tahrir -- the group that is believed to be singled out for the worst treatment in prison. (Gulnoza Saidazimova)

KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY FACES OFFICIAL BAN AHEAD OF ELECTIONS. The opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) party moved a step closer to political extinction on 17 January when an appeals court rejected its bid to overturn a ban on the party's activities.

Jumash Kenebay, editor in chief of the Kazakh newspaper "Juma Times-Data Nedeli," attended the appellate trial and said the court's decision appeared a foregone conclusion. "I was at the trial from the very beginning to the very end. One thing is clear to me. All this is a state orchestrated performance," Kenebay said. "Look! The verdict itself is very long. It was not possible to print it out just in 15 minutes. It looks like the verdict has been printed beforehand. Everything was clear from the very beginning. The whole case is politically motivated."

Officially, the DVK was banned for calling for street protests following September's parliamentary elections, which many in the opposition continue to claim were rigged to favor pro-government candidates.

But since its founding in late 2001, members of the DVK have raised allegations of corruption by top officials, including President Nursultan Nazarbaev's government.

DVK founders Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov and Mukhtar Abliyazov, both former high-ranking officials who turned against the government, were jailed months after the DVK was created. And the party had trouble registering for the 2004 elections.

But the court ruling does not necessarily spell the end of the party. One of its leaders, Asylbek Qojakhmetov, said the DVK will exhaust all its legal options. "By law, we have two more [higher] courts to appeal to. Today, we have challenged the fact that the case was tried in absentia. Now we are going to challenge the fact that our case was discussed at the Economic Court. What economic misdeed have we committed, I wonder? Our case should have been heard at the Administrative Court," Qojakhmetov said.

Analysts, meanwhile, say the problems the DVK faces now might have something to do with the 2006 presidential elections. Alex Vatanka, editor of the London-based Jane's Sentinel publication Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder, said the appearance of DVK leaders in Kyiv after the recent successful "Orange Revolution" by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has sparked unease among Kazakh government officials.

"The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and other opposition from Kazakhstan actually traveled to Ukraine recently to be standing next to President-elect Yushchenko. These are the kind of images that probably made President Nazarbaev panic and his advisers [also]," Vatanka said.

Other opposition parties have already expressed concern that they might be next. Bulat Abilov, co-chairman of the Ak Zhol party, was recently quoted as saying that authorities are likely to "neutralize" his party in a similar way.

Presidential elections are not scheduled until December 2006. But analysts say the government may prefer ridding itself of potential obstacles to Nazarbaev's reelection well before the polls.

Vatanka said he believes the government should not be concerned about Kazakhstan's opposition possibly copying the events in Ukraine, or Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003. For one, he said geography played a role in the events in Ukraine that it simply could not in Kazakhstan.

"Ukraine is much nearer to, it's actually bordering the European Union now. Countries like Poland have a massive stake in making sure their man won it [the election]. In Kazakhstan, you don't have that. You don't have that kind of international intense pressure against the regime," Vatanka said.

The situation in Kazakhstan is different in other ways as well. Kazakhstan is enjoying amazing economic growth fueled by the country's booming oil business.

And its political opposition, particularly given these recent moves, is not nearly as strong as it was in Ukraine and Georgia. (Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service)

DOUBTS RAISED ABOUT FAIRNESS OF UPCOMING TAJIK ELECTION. Tajikistan holds elections to parliament on 27 February, but so far it looks like an easy victory for the ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) led by President Imomali Rakhmonov. Five other parties are competing for seats, but most of them have had problems getting all of their candidates registered and some parties -- both officially registered and not -- face the possibility of their leaders heading to jail. This is the second election since the end of the country's civil war, but it looks to be less free and fair than the previous poll. Much of what the opposition gained by signing a peace agreement looks set to be lost through elections.

Registration of candidates for the 22 seats available on the basis of party lists ended last week. Muhibullo Dodojonov, the head of the commission on elections and referendums, announced the number of registered candidates on 14 January.

"As of 14 January, the candidates from party lists were as follows: the Democratic Party has four candidates [registered]; the Communist Party, nine candidates; the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan has 21; the Islamic Renaissance Party 15; the Socialist Party five, and the Social-Democratic Party seven," Dodojonov said.

The People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan, which controls 65 percent of the seats in parliament, seems poised for a clear victory. It is the largest party, boasting some 70,000 registered members. Only the Communist Party comes close with a declared 60,000 members.

The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan claims to have some 20,000 members and none of the other three parties registered to take part in the February elections -- the Social-Democratic Party, Socialist Party, and Democratic Party -- has 10,000 members.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Democratic Party of Tajikistan. The party can trace its origins back to the last days of the Soviet Union, but despite its 15-year history it still counts only about 4,500 members.

Its leader, Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, was detained in Moscow last month at the request of Tajik authorities. Dodojonov pointed out that his registration was rejected because he has criminal charges pending against him.

Shortly after Iskandarov was detained in Moscow, Tajikistan's Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov said the Democratic Party leader faces serious charges.

"On the 27th of August [2004], at one in the morning, the local Interior Ministry office and prosecutor's office in Tajikabad region came under gunfire attack," Bobokhonov said. "One police officer received injuries. The organizer of this terror attack was Mahmudruzi Iskandarov. He is the organizer of the terror attacks in Tajikabad."

Iskandarov's party claims his arrest was politically motivated and pre-planned. Rahmatullo Valiev is deputy leader of the party.

"Everything is clear," Valiev said. "Mr. Iskandarov was deprived of the right to run on the eve of elections and the aim was to prevent him [Iskandarov] from running in elections and also not to permit the Democratic Party to participate in elections. This was planned in advance."

The Democratic Party has said it will participate in the elections despite an earlier threat to boycott them over the disqualification of its leader.

Charges also surfaced last week against Sultan Kuvvatov, the leader of the unregistered Tarraqiyot (Development) Party.

Briefly a candidate for the presidency in 1999, Kuvvatov has tried unsuccessfully for the last three years to get his party registered for the parliamentary poll. But he now appears set to defend himself in court against allegations that he insulted the Tajik president and incited ethnic hatred.

The Islamic Renaissance Party has also complained about problems registering its candidates. Party leader Said Abdullo Nuri said at his party's congress that he believes these elections won't be any better than those held in 2000.

"Unfortunately, in practice, the law is not being observed and of course, there will be violations of the law," Nuri said. "I think that in these coming elections, compared to the last ones, the law will be observed more -- but all the same, there are doubts they [elections] will be transparent of fair."

After the peace agreement of 1997 that ended five years of civil war, many praised the Tajik government for giving 30 percent of government posts to opposition parties they had fought during the war.

Tajikistan also remains the only country in Central Asia where an Islamic party is officially registered.

But the upcoming poll seem bound to undo most of what was accomplished by the peace deal, as Central Asian expert Olivier Roy told RFE/RL.

"Apparently, the government is ready to lose its recently acquired legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the international community, just in order to ensure its power," Roy said. "It appears now that pluralism in Tajikistan was accepted by the government only as a way to get out of the civil war. Now that there is almost no risk of a renewal of the civil war, the government doesn't feel bound by its previous commitments to pluralism."

The Tajik government, aware of Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003 and the more recent "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, has made it clear that foreign interference will not be tolerated.

Election officials warned on 14 January that any candidate found to be receiving financial support from foreign organizations or individuals will be barred from taking part in the elections. (Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Mirzo Salimov and Sojida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service)