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Central Asia Report: August 17, 2001

17 August 2001, Volume 1, Number 4

KAZHEGELDIN TRIED IN ABSENTIA IN ASTANA. The trial against Akezhan Kazhegeldin, emigre leader of the opposition Kazakh Republican People's Party, opened at the Supreme Court in the Kazakh capital Astana on 15 August. Kazhegeldin is accused of abuse of power, extorting bribes, illegal weapons possession, and tax evasion during his tenure as prime minister from 1994 to 1997. Kazhegeldin, who has lived in Western Europe since 1998, is not attending the trial; Kazakh law was recently amended to permit defendants to be tried in absentia. State Prosecutor Garifulla Utebaev noted that the accused had been summoned to court through various channels, including an attempt to serve him a subpoena on 18 July at a U.S. congressional hearing on human rights in Central Asia, and said that Kazhegeldin's refusal to obey the summons reflected his "contempt for Kazakh laws," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

Judge Bektas Beknazarov announced that part of the trial will be open, although all video and audio equipment are banned from the courtroom, and part will be closed since some of the facts to be presented are classified as state secrets. During the trial, which is expected to last until 24 August, 75 witnesses are scheduled to testify including top administration officials past and present, provincial governors, and leading businessmen.

On the trial's first day, former Minister for Trade and Industry Khayrolla Ospanov described how Kazhegeldin, without cabinet authorization, freed the Sokolov Sarbay Ore Processing Association and the Kazakhstan Aluminum Company from paying VAT on nonferrous-metal exports. That afternoon and on the following two days testimony focused on how Kazhegeldin, allegedly on his own initiative, signed government ordinances illegally privatizing massive state enterprises, such as Thermal Power Station 1 in the northern city of Ekibastuz. According to State Prosecutor Aleksandr Baikov, it was sold in 1996 to the U.S. firm AES for 100 million tenge (then worth about $1.3 million) despite having assets valued at 23.7 billion tenge.

Baikov further cited various cases of alleged bribe-taking, detailing how one businessman gave Kazhegeldin almost $437,000, of which $180,000 reportedly went towards refurbishing his apartment, $47,000 was spent on a Toyota four-wheel-drive, and $200,000 was spent on an armored Mercedes-600SL.

The deputy leader of the Azamat Party, Petr Svoik, and other opposition leaders in Kazakhstan criticized the trial, Interfax-Kazakhstan said on 16 August. Svoik, while suggesting that Kazhegeldin deserves to be prosecuted as "one of the founding fathers of corruption" in the country, said that a trial in absentia was "legally absurd," and that holding it at the Supreme Court violated the rights of the accused since a conviction would leave him with nowhere to appeal. He added that if top officials were testifying with personal knowledge of "multimillion bribes" then they too "are absolutely liable to prosecution" as accessories.

Often regarded as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's main political rival, Kazhegeldin has repeatedly asserted that all the criminal charges leveled at him are politically motivated.

ANTI-ISLAMIST CRACKDOWNS: MORE ARRESTS OF HIZB UT-TAHRIR ACTIVISTS IN TAJIKISTAN, KYRGYZSTAN... Three female members of the banned radical Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir were arrested on 12 August in the northern Tajik city of Gafurov, ITAR-TASS and Interfax news agencies reported. According to an unnamed Interior Ministry source, police raided the apartment of 32-year-old Salima Muminova, described as a local cell leader of the underground movement, and arrested her together with two other party activists as they were getting ready for religious lectures. Twenty books of religious propaganda attacking the Tajik Constitution were discovered in the apartment as well as a register of local party members, the source said, who emphasized that Hizb ut-Tahrir is committed to overthrowing the secular regimes in Central Asia and establishing an Islamic caliphate.

Although over 50 members of the banned party have been arrested this year in Tajikistan, and 10 sentenced so far to various prison terms, these latest three are the first female activists to be arrested. Each of the women has four children. By some estimates, there may be as many as 4,000 party members in Tajikistan, thought to be predominantly young people, and up to 7,000 supporters and sympathizers in the country.

On 6 August, Interfax reported that six extremists of the party were arrested in Kyrgyzstan's southern Jalal-Abad region and three in the city of Osh for distributing leaflets calling for the government to be toppled. Over 60 party members have been arrested in the country this year. On 10 August, Kyrgyz-Press news agency reported that one-third of the young people in the Kyrgyz town of Kara Suu, not far from Osh, may sympathize with Hizb ut-Tahrir and that activists were now propagandizing in schools. The agency quoted the head of the district police department, Sagynbek Ismailov, who said that police treated activists they caught relatively leniently, letting them off with a warning. "We need not only laws and coercive measures but also explanatory work by imams. They, however, are silent," he said, while calling the "missionaries" distributing subversive literature within Kyrgyzstan.

There has been much speculation lately in the Kyrgyz press that poverty and unemployment are making the radical solutions of religious extremists increasingly attractive to young people in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz newspaper "Delo No's" website reported a study concluding that 88 percent of Kyrgyz citizens are now living below the poverty line. A majority of those polled estimated that an adult would need 1,000 soms (about $21) per month to get by adequately.

...TAJIK TERRORIST SANGINOV KILLED, KHODOYBERDIEV ALLIES CAPTURED... Tajik rebel leader Rahmon Sanginov, nicknamed Hitler, whose gang has been the target of the government antiterrorist Operation Lightning mounted on 12 July, was killed on the morning of 10 August by Tajik army and Interior Ministry forces, RIA-Novosti and Asia-Plus news agencies said, although reports differed about where it happened (either 70 kilometers east of the capital Dushanbe or much nearer at Teppai Samarqandi village, 10 kilometers away). Sanginov's death, following that of his co-ringleader Mansur Muqqalov on 20 July, should break the back of rebel forces in Tajikistan. According to Interior Ministry officials, over 60 terrorists have been killed in the last month, 80 captured, and only about a dozen remain at large. Last week one of Muqqalov's closest allies, Abduvohid Hamdamov, was captured after a battle on a farm outside Dushanbe, Asia-Plus reported on 9 August. Sanginov and Muqqalov, who were UTO (United Tajik Opposition) field commanders during the civil war who rearmed their rebel bands subsequent to the June 1997 peace agreement, were responsible for hostage-taking, drug-trafficking, and arms-smuggling, as well as 270 murders, Tajik officials have said.

In a separate operation conducted in Tajikstan's northern Soghd region, law enforcement agencies recently rooted out four activists loyal to Mahmud Khudoyberdiev, who launched an attack on the area from Uzbek territory in 1998 that resulted on the death of over 100 people, said Iranian radio on 14 August. Since 1998 over 120 Khudoyberdiev allies have been jailed and three sentenced to death by the Tajik Supreme Court, the radio reported.

...IMU MILITANTS CONVICTED IN UZBEKISTAN. On 14 August in Uzbekistan, six alleged Islamist militants from the Ferghana Valley were convicted of recruiting 15 local men for Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist training camps in the villages of Jirgatol and Khoit in the mountains of Tajikistan, the Uzbek newspaper "Halq so'zi" and ITAR-TASS reported. The court heard that IMU militia leaders Djuma Namangani and Tohir Yuldoshev paid a premium of $100-200 for each new recruit. The two defendants identified as the leaders of the band of recruiters were said to have undergone terrorist training themselves in Afghanistan in 1995-97, and were sentenced to 18 years in jail with confiscation of property for "terrorist acts and the murders of local officials and policemen." The other four, who were accused of "undermining the constitutional system of Uzbekistan," were sentenced to shorter terms in high-security prisons.

In the face of widespread accusations that Uzbek legal procedure is profoundly flawed and politicized, the government newspaper "Halq so'zi" took the unusual step of explicitly refuting the criticisms on 10 August with a report from Deputy Interior Minister Rajab Qodirov. In the first 7 months of the year, 9,446 people were jailed, many being released without serving full terms, and 6,297 were given suspended sentences. "Uzbekistan, like other countries, has no interest in jailing innocent people," the newspaper said.

LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES PROTECT CRIMINALS, SAYS KYRGYZ PRIME MINISTER. Without mincing words, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev told his senior government colleagues that the Ministries of Justice, National Security, and the Interior, the Prosecutor-General's office, customs services, and financial police were inefficient, riddled with corruption, abetted smuggling and embezzlement, and needed to be purged, Interfax reported on 10 August. The occasion was a cabinet meeting to discuss the administration's 2001-2003 program for fighting corruption and economic crime. "What kind of justice it is when people are sent to prison for stealing one chicken," while known criminals who have robbed the country of $25 million are freely at large, Bakiev asked rhetorically.

Bakiev stated that smuggling has increased 20-fold in the last five years, depriving the state budget of about $31 million in uncollected taxes. Calling the situation "a total mess," he said that law-enforcement bodies worked hand-in-glove with criminal groups and sheltered them from justice. The meeting was not attended by President Askar Akaev, who is holidaying on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul.

As if echoing Bakiev's words, on the same day Kyrgyz-Press reported that residents of the town of Kara Suu in the south of the country were indignantly protesting a not guilty verdict in the trial of a family of accused drug dealers, although local police allegedly caught them red-handed. The agency suggested that it was common knowledge that drug dealers in the area had their own police protectors who ensured that they are never tried in court or, if convicted, serve absurdly short sentences.

Recent reports from Kazakhstan indicate a similar state of affairs. In the city of Shakhtinsk in central Kazakhstan, five police officers from the antinarcotics squad were convicted of forcing a woman to deal drugs and pay them 15-20,000 tenge ($102-$136) per week out of her profits, the newspaper "Kazakhhstanskaya pravda" reported on 7 August. The sentences ranged from one to 7 1/2 years.

Furthermore the Kazakh Supreme Court on 14 August (the day before the opening of Kazhegeldin's trial) reviewed the case of Temirtas Tleulesov, author of two books entitled "Nest of Vultures" and "The Shymkent Mafia," detailing the illegal activities of senior officials in southern Kazakhstan's regional government. The trial took place in absentia as the defendant is in hiding. Tleulesov was convicted of "hooliganism" and sentenced to two years in jail.

NUCLEAR-WASTE STORAGE AT SEMIPALATINSK? The research director at Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center, Zhabaga Takibaev, sparked controversy at a press conference in Almaty on 15 August when he said that spent BN-350 nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from the Mangyshlak atomic power station, in the country's western Mangistau region, could be transported to the foothills of eastern Kazakhstan and safely buried at the ex-Soviet, now defunct Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.

The proposal, Interfax reported, is to construct special concrete bunkers at the site's Baykal storage facility and keep radioactive materials there for about 50 years. Spent fuel from the Mangyshlak reactor is presently stored in containers at the station. Assuming that the nuclear-disposal plan is successful, Takibaev said, then Kazakhstan "will be able to accept highly radioactive wastes from abroad" to store at Semipalatinsk.

Such ideas have been mooted before. However, the Semipalatinsk test range is an emotive issue in Kazakhstan, conjuring memories of scores of atmospheric and underground Soviet nuclear tests conducted over a 50-year period that have been blamed for an appallingly high incidence of birth defects and disease in the east of the republic as well as environmental degradation. Closing Sempalatinsk was one of President Nazarbaev's first and most popular executive orders. Last week, rumors that the site might be revamped within two years as a nuclear dumping ground were already stirring considerable public reaction in the East Kazakhstan region, the newspaper "Express-K" reported on August 10, prompting the region's governor, Vitalii Mette, publicly to deny that there were any such plans: "By burying radioactive waste, we mean exclusively radioactive sources that are used in industry and medicine.... There is no talk about anything else," he said.

Perhaps due to government backtracking on an idea that is likely to be unpopular, the Nuclear Center press service said on 15 August that the storage option discussed by Takibaev did not yet have official approval, Interfax reported.

CONTINUING CONTROVERSY ABOUT SINO-KYRGYZ BORDER AGREEMENT. On 9 August, a 13-member Kyrgyz public committee studying Kyrgyz-China border issues returned to Bishkek after a three-day fact-finding mission to the Uzengi-Kuush border region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 August 2001). The delegation was led by Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan Chairman Tursunbek Akunov. The mission was prompted by parliament's dissatisfaction with President Akaev signing of a frontier-delimitation agreement with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on 26 August 1999, without inviting the parliament discuss it. According to the document, Kyrgyzstan cedes to China 87,000 hectares in the Uzengi-Kuush region. Akaev has argued that both this agreement and an earlier one signed in Shanghai in 1996 are in the best interest of the country. Some lawmakers, including parliamentary committee Chairman Ismail Isakov, feel that Akaev is surrendering to Beijing several important glaciers in the region that represent strategic Kyrgyz water resources. Members of the mission confirmed that the territory to be surrendered was worthless for crops or grazing but were divided about the water resources. In particular Doelet Nusupov, chairman of the Asaba Party, said that the glaciers were too significant to give up and that his party would oppose the signed border agreement.