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Central Asia Report: May 30, 2002


30 May 2002, Volume 2, Number 21

KAZAKH MEDIA UNDER FIRE. A ruling by the Almaty Municipal Economic Court on 27 May, shutting down the independent weekly newspaper "Delovoe Obozrenie-Respublika" (Republic Business Review), delivered a judicial coup de grace to a publication that was already reeling after its Almaty office was firebombed by unidentified attackers on 22 May. The decision represented the latest blow to Kazakhstan's independent media in 2002, a year described as a "black period" for the press -- the worst since the country became independent in 1991 -- by Union of Journalists Chairman Seitqazy Mataev, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported on 22 May. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists used more inflammatory language, issuing a statement on 24 May that accused the Kazakh authorities of "waging a war" against nongovernment media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2002). A statement by the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) concurred, saying, "Over the past couple of months, the government has been waging an all-out war on those journalists who are bold enough to tell the truth," iwpr.net reported on 24 May.

Kazakh journalists critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's regime have suffered harassment by the authorities for years. In retrospect, however, an attack on Tan-TV this spring heralded a new, cruder approach to suppressing dissent when unknown assailants opened fire at the station's transmission facilities late on 28 March and severed the antenna's feeder cable, putting the TV out of commission for over a month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2002). On 3 May, the Aq-Zhayiq publishing house in the western Kazakh town of Atyrau went up in flames when mysterious vandals lobbed Molotov cocktails into the premises around 4:30 a.m. On 15 May, Tan-TV's transmission cable was sabotaged again, pierced by a steel needle to short-circuit the contacts. Tan TV is an influential mouthpiece for former Industry and Trade Minister Mukhtar Abliazov, who was arrested in March some months after co-founding the DVK movement (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 4 April 2002). Abliazov also owns "Delovoe Obozrenie-Respublika," iwpr.net pointed out on 24 May. Its editorial office and all the equipment there were destroyed by Molotov cocktails at about 4 a.m. on 22 May, costing the newspaper more than 2 million tenge (about $13,000), according to a preliminary estimate reported by the website. Three days previously, the newspaper's editor, Irina Petrushova, found the decapitated body of a dog hung on the office window with a note reading, "This is the last warning," (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2002).

Meanwhile on 21 May, four unidentified men forced their way into the editorial office of the newspaper "SolDat," which is closely connected with former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin's opposition Republican People's Party. The attackers beat up and bound two reporters, stole computers and other equipment, and threatened to return if the newspaper continued publishing, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The next day the paper's chief editor, Yermurat Bapi, expressed his belief that the attack was politically motivated. He told a press conference that the stolen equipment was worth $19,000 and that his newspaper would have to suspend publication for at least a month.

The government's position was summed up by a spokesman for Almaty City Interior Affairs Department, Rakhimzhan Taizhanov, who told outraged journalists on 23 May that the attacks on "SolDat" and "Delovoe Obozrenie-Respublika" were the work of common hooligans and burglars, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Nevertheless, speculation raged that agents of the National Security Committee (NSC) were involved -- not least because there have been no reports of any hooligans or burglars attacking government media outlets. But in the capital, Astana, NSC Press Secretary Kenzhebolat Beknazarov categorically denied such rumors on 28 May, calling them "far from the truth," and said that the Interior Ministry was investigating the cases, RFE/RL reported. On the same day, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqayev again rejected "rumors" that Kazakh authorities were behind the attacks, calling them an attempt to damage Kazakhstan's international reputation, Interfax reported. But the spokesman also said that his minister was very concerned by the situation faced by some media outlets, adding that Kazakhstan was a democratic country doing its best to guarantee the rights and freedom of all its citizens.

Such assurances from Astana were generally dismissed by a gathering of opposition politicians and NGO representatives in Almaty on 28 May, and Yeraly Abilqasimov, a deputy from the Mazhlis (parliament's lower chamber), called on the legislature to establish a proper commission to investigate the attacks (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 29 May 2002). Perhaps significantly, no government figure seems to have condemned outright either the latest attacks against local newspapers or the acts of vandalism in recent months. On 23 May, a joint statement by the Union of Journalists, Internews in Kazakhstan, and the Adil Soz foundation for free speech slammed the authorities for expressing "no attitude toward the bandit attacks on the independent mass media" and giving "the impression of total indifference," concluding that "crime as a way to struggle against opponents may become an every day, constituent part of the public life of the country."

An IWPR commentary on 24 May suggested that Nazarbaev may be counting on Kazakhstan's burgeoning strategic relationship with the United States to make Washington overlook his recent crackdown on political opponents -- as well as the attacks on local periodicals, which many analysts believe are, in fact, government-orchestrated and part and parcel of that crackdown. But on 23 May, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Larry Napper did reportedly inform the Kazakh leadership of Washington's concern over the incidents, and urged "an independent and transparent investigation," Reuters reported. He stopped well short of assigning any blame for the attacks, merely calling for "appropriate action to protect and advance democratic development, a free press, and the rule of law," U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said in Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 May 2002). On the same day, Napper met with "Delovoe Obozrenie-Respublika" Editor in Chief Petrushova and visited the paper's burned-out office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2002).

Yet on 27 May, in a move that some oppositionists regarded as overkill, the Almaty Municipal Economic Court ordered Petrushova's newspaper to be closed down on the grounds that it failed to comply with a court verdict delivered in April. According to that April ruling, the newspaper should suspend its operations due to what the court called "legal technicalities," RFE/RL reported on 27 May. More specifically, the closure was due to the paper's alleged failure to show the exact days it is published. It had continued publication in spite of that ruling, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau noted on 28 May.

HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS ARRESTED IN UZBEKISTAN. On the morning of 24 May, Yoldash Rasulov, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), was arrested while leaving his house in the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi, put in a car, and transferred to a cell in the Interior Ministry building in the capital Tashkent, the opposition website birlik.net reported on 25 May. His arrest capped off a two-day sweep of Qarshi during which at least three other human rights defenders were plucked from the street by police and taken to Tashkent, the website said. All four detainees are accused of belonging to the illegal Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to the HRSU press center, Rasulov's relatives -- who visited the Interior Ministry's regional office for Kashkadarya Oblast in Qarshi -- were told by an official that they could secure Rasulov's freedom immediately upon payment of 500,000 sums ($357).

To protest the arrests, HRSU Chairman Tolib Yokubov and two colleagues picketed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tashkent on 27 May, RFE/RL's Uzbek bureau said. (Other reports suggested that they picketed the Ministry of Internal Affairs.) The demonstrators wore placards around their necks reading, "The Uzbek government is going to mark the first anniversary of the death of former activist Shovruh Ruzimurad by arresting a member of the [Human Rights] Society." Ruzimurad, a parliamentary deputy in the early 1990s who became the opposition Birlik Party's branch head in Kashkadarya Oblast, was taken into custody on 15 June last year and tortured to death in prison (see "Activist Buried After Dying in Police Custody," rferl.org, 11 July 2001). Soon after the picket on 27 May started, RFE/RL's Uzbek bureau said, the deputy chairman of the ministry's Department for Combating Terrorism, Ilya Pegay, came out to speak to the protesters. He told journalists on the scene that Rasulov had been fingered by unspecified members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as the leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Qarshi. (Meanwhile, Bahtiyor Hamraev, a HRSU member, denied that Rasulov was connected to any radical religious group, saying, "This is an action against our human rights organization," RFE/RL reported on 27 May.) Within an hour, police broke up the protest, birlik.net said on the same day and, while Yokubov was invited into the ministry supposedly to talk to officials, his colleagues outside were quickly hustled into a van and detained at a police station for an hour before being released. Yokubov himself left the ministry within minutes of entering and was not detained.

In a separate but parallel development, the leader of the opposition Erk Party, Atanazar Oripov, was seized from his home in Tashkent by police on 25 May and detained all day to prevent him from addressing a party meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2002). Without being questioned, Oripov was left alone in a room for seven hours in the Interior Ministry and then brought home, AP said. Meanwhile, some 30 Erk Party members had gathered at a Tashkent teahouse in order to schedule a party congress and to adopt a declaration calling for the government to ease restrictions on political activity and permit their party to reregister, AP reported on 25 May.

IMU FIGHTERS EXTRADITED FROM AFGHANISTAN. Seven Uzbek nationals said to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and who fought in Afghanistan on the side of the Taliban were extradited to Uzbekistan by the interim government in Kabul, Interfax and AP reported on 25 May. The seven men, who were rounded up in a U.S-led antiterrorist action and had been held in a prison in the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif, were handed over at the Friendship Bridge spanning the Amu Darya River in the border town of Termez, Uzbek TV noted on the same day. The prisoners had yet to be identified, but Tashkent had already opened investigations to define "their involvement in crimes committed by the international terrorist organization," the television said. Washington designated the IMU a terrorist organization last autumn. AP added on 25 May that an eighth prisoner, an ethnic Uzbek citizen of Afghanistan, was also reportedly surrendered to Uzbekistan's government but went unmentioned in local media. Meanwhile Afghan Defense Minister Fahim Khan, visiting the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 25 May, told journalists that IMU leader Juma Namangani might be alive and have taken refuge with a group of followers in Tajikistan near the border with Pakistan. This contradicts recent assurances by the Pentagon that Namangani died while fighting alongside the Taliban last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2002).

Uzbek President Islam Karimov already sought to eliminate one possible safe haven for Islamist militants when he signed a protocol in March on ratifying an extradition treaty with Pakistan that had been drawn up last year. Suspecting that IMU fighters might have taken refuge in India, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov signed a criminal extradition protocol with Delhi's representative in Tashkent, UzA news agency reported on 23 May. The original extradition document was signed during Karimov's official visit to India in 2000. A semi-official statement that the protocol would contribute to the struggle against terrorism, reported by uzreport.com, seemed to confirm that the criminals targeted for extradition were members of the anti-Karimov Islamist opposition.

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