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Qishloq Ovozi

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
Wearing their traditional costumes (and beards) Turkmen elders listen to Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during a meeting in Dashoguz. (file photo)

Turkmenistan's Council of Elders just met in the capital, Ashgabat. It has long been the custom for the council to laud the alleged achievements of the president, and this latest meeting was no exception. The Council of Elders bestowed another award on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and the president honored the equally well-established tradition of lauding the country's supposed achievements, this time ahead of the 20th anniversary of the United Nations recognizing Turkmenistan as a neutral country.

I have long had questions about these elders: how they receive their positions and what they do. And fortunately for me, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, recently interviewed a man who is now a former elder.

Jora Aga has an amazing tale to tell, although he told it only reluctantly to our Azatlyk correspondent.

It started with a question about why Jora had shaved his "beautiful beard."

"I'm a pensioner, and when I became a pensioner suddenly I was invited to sit in places of honor at weddings and events with other elders, many of whom had beards. I had a grandson, so I decided one day I should grow a beard," he said.

But he continued, "If I had known I would face so many difficulties, I never would have grown it."

Jora's beard grew long. "It covered my entire chest," he explained.

His beard came to the attention of the village chief, who invited Jora for a conversation one day.

"He said, 'You are a confident speaker in front of people, you also have a beautiful beard. It suits you. We need people like you to greet the masses. So what would you think if we invited you to celebrations and mass events?'"

It sounded like a great honor as well as potentially being a bit of fun, so Jora accepted.

"I said yes," Jora recalled, "after two or three days the village chief came to my home."

The chief told Jora elders who participate in public events needed the proper attire and offered, for 340 manats, to purchase such clothing for Jora.

"He brought me a hat" -- the large white fur hat of the Turkmen -- "and a gown," Jora said. "The ordeal started from there."

"They started to take me to events in the village, then around the district. They asked me to speak and I spoke. Then they started taking me to provincial events, and two or three times they asked me to come to the capital for national events," Jora said.

On His Own Dime

While officials were pleased to have Jora attend these events, they did not offer him free transportation. That money came from Jora's pocket. Jora said he regularly attended 10 or 15 events a month, sometimes even as many as 20 public gatherings.

"If there was a wedding,' Jora please come.'"

"If there was a commemoration banquet, 'Jora come.'"

"If they were planting grain or cotton, 'Jora come.'"

"If they were harvesting grain or cotton, 'Jora come.'"

Jora said he was often away from his home and that it became a problem.

"My wife started nagging, saying, 'It is either these events or us, or make them pay you something for your time.'"

He went on: "I told her you cannot get snow from officials in winter, let alone receive a salary [for attending public events]."

Our correspondent mentioned there were reports that the elders received gifts when they attended high-level events.

"People might talk about this," Jora responded, "but in reality, no such thing exists."

So why didn't Jora simply resign from his position as a venerated elder?

"I tried. I went to the village chief and told him I wanted to stop participating in mass events. He said no, because my name was already written down on the official list of invitees," Jora said.

"I went to the district chief's office and requested my name be taken off the [official] list," Jora continued. "They said, 'We don't invite all old men to events. If we want, there are many people who could be invited, but some have problems growing beards and others have problems in the background checks that go back seven generations.'"

Such generation checks were instituted several years ago and are mandatory for people seeking posts in the government. Anyone who had an ancestor who committed a crime, even more than 100 years ago, is barred from receiving state posts; and, more generally, it complicates the lives and aspirations of those living in Turkmenistan today if they had such an ancestor.

"I realized I couldn't escape," Jora said, "So I decided to play a trick. I told them one of my relatives in the seven-generation list had a criminal record, but they didn't pay any attention."

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, so Jora resorted to...the barber.

"I went straight to the barber shop and told him to shave off my beard," Jora said. "I was relieved, as if a great weight had been taken off my shoulders."

It was the end of Jora's days of attending public events.

"These days I shave every day, or at least every other day. Thank God, I can spend time with my grandsons, I don't leave home, and my wife has stopped nagging."

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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.