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Central Asia Report: July 25, 2002

25 July 2002, Volume 2, Number 28

RENEWED CONCERNS THAT TERRORISTS ARE REGROUPING. Confidence that the war in Afghanistan had secured Central Asian regimes from Islamist foes seemed to be waning last week, as worries mounted that new terrorist incursions were imminent. These worries were underscored by fresh warnings that Djuma Namangani, the military commander of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), was alive.

Misir Ashyrkulov, chairman of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Council, said on 24 July that Namangani was alive and currently in the Badakhshan district of Afghanistan, Kabar news agency and Interfax reported. According to Ashyrkulov, Namangani is mustering a militia of 1,500 men, some of whom have already crossed into Tajikistan, in preparation for an assault on the Ferghana Valley. The IMU, which virulently opposes Uzbek President Islam Karimov's aggressively secular regime, says it aims to create an Islamic caliphate in the Central Asian heartland. Ashyrkulov already announced twice last month that IMU militants were gathering on the Afghan-Tajik frontier with a view to launching an attack on Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July 2002). But his contention that Namangani did not perish during an American antiterrorist operation in northern Afghanistan last November, as U.S. sources insist, is new information from Ashyrkulov, although Afghan Defense Minister Fahim Khan raised the possibility during a visit to Tajikistan in May. UPI noted on 23 July that a grave has been discovered in the Afghan province of Lugar with personal belongings and body remains believed to be Namangani's. But Ashyrkulov said, "proof of Djuma Namangani's death has not been discovered," the news agency reported. Meanwhile intelligence services monitoring radio frequencies used by alleged terrorists in the region said last month that Namangani was often mentioned as if he was still alive, Asia-Plus added.

According to analysts, last week's kidnapping of a Tajik border guard and three local men near the southern Tajik city of Shurabad (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July 2002) presaged a revival of Islamist activism in the region and could also indicate that Namangani was alive, UPI said. The three civilians were soon freed, while negotiations continued to secure the release of the border guard, for which the kidnappers had demanded a ransom of $80,000, AP reported on 19 July. Fears of renewed militant activities also surfaced in a U.S. State Department statement issued on 23 July in which it warned of possible terrorist attacks on American facilities worldwide including Uzbekistan, Reuters and ITAR-TASS reported.

Responding to claims that IMU supporters have been crossing from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, in particular to reclaim bases in the Garm Valley in mountainous eastern Tajikistan that they were forced to abandon in 2001, top Tajik officials have denied the reports or played down their significance. On 25 July, Tajik Security Council Deputy Secretary Mirzovatan Hasanliev called the news "an unfounded statement and an invention," although he admitted that there were bands of militants in Afghan Badakhshan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July 2002). President Imomali Rakhmonov has insisted that terrorists are not infiltrating his country's border and offered assurances that Tajikistan would not turn into a "gateway to Central Asia" for remnants of Al-Qaeda. But both Russian border-guard commanders and members of Rakhmonov's own Tajik border protection committee have said otherwise, IWPR noted on 19 July.

ABLIYAZOV HANDED SIX-YEAR SENTENCE. On 18 July the Supreme Court in the Kazakh capital Astana found former Energy, Industry, and Trade Minister Mukhtar Abliyazov guilty and sentenced him to six years' incarceration and a massive fine, Reuters and RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. The 39-year-old politician and businessman was accused of abuse of office and fraud, euphemistically described by the court as "illegal entrepreneurial activity," while running the national power-grid company KEGOC and later serving as minister from 1997 to 1999. In addition to the jail time, Abliyazov was ordered to pay the state treasury $3.6 million, representing the amount of money he was said to have embezzled. He was given one month to make the payment, although it was unclear what additional penalties he might face if he failed to do so, or how repayment was even possible given that his punishment also included confiscation of all his property, including a four-room apartment in Almaty, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said. The court charged Abliyazov a further150,000 tenge ($980) in legal costs, IWPR noted on 23 July. According to Reuters, the defendant was acquitted on a single count -- of costing the state $2,888 by making personal calls on a KEGOC cell phone.

Abliyazov has no appeal from the Supreme Court's decision save to request a personal pardon from President Nursultan Nazarbaev. But opposition parliamentarian Tolen Tokhrasyov said the court was operating under the personal instructions of Nazarbaev, AP reported on 18 July. Moreover, Gulzhan Ergalieva, who is deputy chair of the National Congress Party, said she knew from reliable informants that Nazarbaev, before going on vacation last week, left orders for the court to sentence both Abliyazov and the former governor of Pavlodar Oblast, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, to the harshest possible punishments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 July 2002). State prosecutors in the Abliyazov case had been pressing for a verdict of seven years' imprisonment. Nonetheless, one of them told Reuters on 18 July that he was still well satisfied with the slightly smaller sentence.

The trial of Zhaqiyanov, who like Abliyazov was one of the co-founders of the opposition Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, commenced one day before that of his DVK colleague ended on 16 July. Zhaqiyanov, too, is accused of power abuse and financial crimes. Prosecutors are demanding a 10-year sentence (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July 2002).

Both men together with their supporters have said that the accusations against them were politically motivated. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher commented on 18 July that the Abliyazov trial "appears to be part of a campaign to selectively target political opponents," as quoted in a department press release. Meanwhile almost 300 DVK members gathered outside the courthouse in Astana on the same day carrying placards with pictures of Abliyazov and Zhaqiyanov and captions reading, "Free the political prisoners!" RFE/RL and AP reported.

At least eight opposition parties have rallied behind the DVK movement, which claims over 12,000 members, IWPR said on 23 July. Nevertheless, assuming Zhaqiyanov's conviction, the future of the DVK is uncertain once it has been deprived of its two best-known and most charismatic standard-bearers. According to Communist Party of Kazakhstan Chairman Serikbolsyn Abdildin, Abliyazov and Zhaqiyanov are becoming "national heroes" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 July 2002). But Nazarbaev is patently applying the full weight of the state to ensure that DVK leaders are neutralized as a threat to his rule. At least one analyst, quoted by IWPR, attributed "the government's eagerness to lock them up" to the insider knowledge they possess of state corruption at the highest levels.

OSCE, U.S. CRITICIZE KAZAKH POLITICAL-PARTY LAW. The unacceptability of political interference in the work of the judiciary was one of the points made by Heinrich Haupt, the outgoing OSCE envoy to Kazakhstan who took up the position in September 2001, in a farewell speech on 22 July assessing the country's political and economic development, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He also criticized the way the executive sought to influence the legislative work of the parliament, and worried about the "virtual disappearance of all critically oriented media" in Kazakhstan during the past few months. In a statement on the following day, Bertel Haarder, the minister for European affairs in Denmark, which currently holds the rotating EU chairmanship, exhorted Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to increase efforts to promote democracy, a free market, and the rule of law, and to safeguard human rights and the independent functioning of the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2002).

Haupt reserved his strongest criticism for the new law on political parties, signed into law last week by President Nazarbaev, whereby any party will require 50,000 signatures to register instead of the 3,000 that were previously required. The law also requires that a party be dissolved if it fails to enter parliament in two subsequent elections. Noting that few, if any, opposition forces will be able to operate legally under such conditions, Haupt said that the law could jeopardize political pluralism in Kazakhstan. He echoed concerns voiced by U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on 18 July, who told journalists at a daily briefing that "restrictive legislation regarding political parties" was one of the recent developments posing "a serious threat to the democratic process in Kazakhstan," Reuters reported. Meanwhile Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK) Chairman Akezhan Kazhegeldin averred on 22 July that the passage of new party law was evidence that support within the country's leadership for Nazarbaev was eroding. He advised opposition parties to ignore the requirement to re-register before the end of 2002 and to continue functioning as before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July 2002).