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The Long Reach Of Uzbekistan's Authorities

  • Bruce Pannier

Muhammad Solih (with his wife, Aydin) case comes after an Uzbek cleric who criticized the government in Tashkent was shot dead in Istanbul in December 2014 and another Uzbek cleric survived an apparent attempt on his life in Sweden.

Muhammad Solih (with his wife, Aydin) case comes after an Uzbek cleric who criticized the government in Tashkent was shot dead in Istanbul in December 2014 and another Uzbek cleric survived an apparent attempt on his life in Sweden.

It's becoming increasingly clear to those who have fled their Uzbek homeland for political reasons that they are not safe even in countries far from Central Asia.

Five men in Turkey are suspects in a plot to kill exiled Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Solih. Two of those men, one an Uzbek national, will soon appear before Istanbul's Tuzla court.

The Solih case comes after an Uzbek cleric who criticized the government in Tashkent was shot dead in Istanbul in December 2014 and another Uzbek cleric survived an apparent attempt on his life in Sweden. And then there are the many Uzbek nationals who have disappeared in Russia, some of them snatched off the street, only to reappear in courts, and later prisons, in Uzbekistan.

Solih told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, on December 3 that suspicious people were hanging out around his home in eastern Istanbul.

Solih called the police, who also started watching his home, and it was not long before they spotted the suspicious characters outside Solih's house. The suspects spotted the police also and attempted, unsuccessfully, to flee.

The men drove away, but Istanbul police caught up to them and took all five people inside the vehicle into custody. Three were later released under the condition that they not leave the city.

Turkish media reported one of the men held in custody was a 33-year-old citizen of Uzbekistan, "Hursanbek U.," and the other man was a Russian national from Daghestan.

Solih is a longtime foe of the Uzbek government. He co-founded the Erk (Freedom) Democratic Party in 1989 when Uzbekistan was still a Soviet republic. Solih ran in the first presidential election in Uzbekistan in December 1991 against Islam Karimov, who is still Uzbekistan's president today. Solih received, officially, an amazing 12.5 percent of the votes, although many believed he got far more votes than that and some said he actually won the election.

This relatively close election (the closest in Uzbekistan's history as an independent country) quickly turned Solih into a perceived enemy of the government, and by 1993, after being accused of treason, he had fled Uzbekistan. He continued his opposition activities from outside the country and was apparently enough of a concern to Uzbekistan's government that in 1999 he was convicted in absentia of plotting to overthrow the government. His alleged co-conspirators were Islamic extremists who formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Uzbek authorities could not convince Turkey, where Solih settled, to extradite the Erk party leader, so his brother Muhammad Bekjon, a journalist, was tried and convicted of planning a coup and imprisoned in 1999. Bekjon is still in prison and now has the dubious distinction of being one of the longest-held journalists in the world.

Istanbul police did not tell Solih much about the suspects or the investigation. After the two suspects were captured by the police, Solih told Ozodlik: "The Karimov regime has a network of killers who freely move between Sweden and Turkey. They are tasked with eliminating people who fight against this [Uzbek] regime."

Ozodlik noted in its reports that someone shot at Solih's home in 2013. No one was injured in that incident and the culprits were never apprehended.

But in December 2014, Abdullah al-Bukhari, a Muslim cleric who spoke out against the Uzbek government, was shot dead in Istanbul.

In November, Swedish prosecutors suggested an assassin who tried to kill another opponent of the Uzbek government in February 2012 was sent to Sweden by someone in the Uzbek government. The intended victim was Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, once the popular imam at the Tokhtaboy Mosque in Tashkent and a critic of the government. Nazarov was seriously wounded in the attack. He suffered brain damage and was in a coma for months.

The chief suspect in the shooting is Yury Zhukovsky, a citizen of Uzbekistan. Chief prosecutor Krister Petersson said in court that evidence suggested the Uzbek government was involved in the assassination attempt. Uzbek authorities have not cooperated with requests from the Swedish prosecutor's office.

In September 2011, Fuad Rustamhojaev was killed outside his home in Ivanovo, Russia. Rustamhojaev was a member of the People's Movement of Uzbekistan, a group Solih formed in May 2011.

Other opposition figures and fugitives from Uzbekistan have fled to Russia only to later be reported missing. Some have been assaulted and shoved into waiting vehicles. Subsequent information about them usually comes when they appear in courtrooms in Uzbekistan.

International rights groups have recorded dozens of such cases in the last 20 years.

Ozodlik's Khurmat Babadjanov contributed to this report

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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