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Qishloq Ovozi

Hazrat Juraev says he was a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for only a short time, and that he did not take part in any fighting.

Hazrat Juraev was 36 years old the last time he saw Uzbekistan. He really didn't want to leave the country then, and now he's afraid to return.

Juraev was detained in Pakistan's southern Balochistan Province last month, and he told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, that the Pakistani authorities wanted to send him back to Uzbekistan, where he almost certainly faces imprisonment or worse.

Juraev tells a curious tale, and we have only his word for the events he describes. But it is quite a story.

Juraev was speaking to Ozodlik from a detention facility in Balochistan, where he had been living and working as an imam.

Juraev has been a religious man for a long time. In the late 1990s he was spreading the teachings of Islam in his native Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, exhibiting the sort of piety that is bound to attract the attention of the Uzbek authorities.

On February 16, 1999, a number of bombs exploded in Tashkent. Many kilometers away in Bukhara, Juraev was not a suspect; but that didn't stop local authorities from bringing him in for questioning, several times.

"During the last [session of] questioning, the police chief told me, 'If something [like the Tashkent bombings] happens in Bukhara, you will be the first person we will bring in.'"

Juraev decided to flee the country, so he was nowhere near Bukhara when bombings did happen in late March 2004.

Juraev departed Uzbekistan shortly after his conversation with the police chief and fled first to Tajikistan but eventually made his way to Afghanistan. He said that in a mosque in Kabul he met people from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). By that time the IMU, allies of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, had already staged armed incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan with the stated goal of overthrowing the Uzbek government.

Juraev told Ozodlik that he decided then to join the IMU, though he claims he never participated in any fighting. His membership in the IMU was short, he said. After the group was decimated by U.S. air strikes in northern Afghanistan in late 2001, Juraev moved on -- this time to Iran, where he was granted UN refugee status. Juraev lived for some 10 years in Zahedan, but when his UN status expired in 2010, the Iranian authorities ordered him to leave the country.

That is reportedly how Juraev ended up in Balochistan. He said he had not been in Uzbekistan for a decade and a half. For the first few years after he left Uzbekistan, he kept in contact with his wife and three children back in the Bukhara area; but at their request he ceased phoning them because they feared problems with the Uzbek authorities.

Juraev is being held in the city of Gwadar. His Pakistani jailers say they intend to send him back to Uzbekistan.

"I asked them not to do that," Juraev said. "I said that in Uzbekistan it is very hard, but they didn't believe me. They said, 'Uzbekistan is a democratic country, everyone is a Muslim there, and you must have done something there and escaped.'"

Juraev has not been given access to a lawyer. Ozodlik contacted local rights defenders who promised to take up his case with the Pakistani authorities. However, due to the presence of IMU militants in Pakistan's tribal areas since 2001, Pakistani officials and the Pakistani media have been depicting Uzbeks as militants for several years now to the point where the word "Uzbek" is practically synonymous with "militant."

Public sentiment in Pakistan would therefore suggest Juraev has good reason to be concerned that he will be sent back to Uzbekistan.

Sirojiddin Tolibov of Ozodlik helped in preparing this report
The best-known figure in Kazakhstan to have been convicted of violating Article 174 is Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered opposition political party Algha (Forward).

The authorities in Kazakhstan are getting a lot of use out of Article 174 of the country's Criminal Code. Article 174 is the one that outlaws actions that foment social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred and actions that insult national honor or dignity or the religious feelings of citizens.

Some inside Kazakhstan and outside feel this legal infraction is vaguely worded, open to broad interpretation and abuse. Listing those who have been detained and incarcerated on this charge, one could get the impression Article 174 is being used as a tool to remove inconvenient individuals.

On January 22, civil activists Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin were convicted for violating Article 174 and sentenced to three years and two years in prison, respectively. Narymbaev and Mambetalin were taken into custody on October 12, 2015, after posting excerpts on their Facebook pages from an unpublished book written by religious figure Murat Telibekov. When questioned, Telibekov said the passages Narymbaev and Mambetalin posted were not even from his book.

Narymbaev and Mambetalin denied their actions were meant to sow discord or incite hatred. But one week after the sentence was handed down, Mambetalin admitted his guilt publicly and apologized, following in the footsteps of Antigeptil (a group that opposes rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the grounds that the toxic rocket fuel heptyl is used) activist Bolatbek Blyayov.

Blyayov was on trial for violating Article 174 and on January 21, the day before Narymbaev and Mambetalin were convicted, Blyayov confessed in court. The court -- taking into consideration Blyayov's admission of guilt, the fact he has three children, one with disabilities, and that his wife does not work -- sentenced Blyayov to three years of restricted freedom.

Mambetalin was released from custody on January 30 but is under orders not to leave Almaty while a court hears his appeal.

Long, Varied List

Narymbaev, Mambetalin, and Blyayov were the latest victims of Article 174, but certainly not the first.

The best-known figure in Kazakhstan to have been convicted of violating Article 174 is Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered opposition political party Algha (Forward). Kozlov attempted to register as a presidential candidate in the 2011 election but was excluded from participating. In January 2012, Kozlov was part of an independent monitoring group that went to the western town of Zhanaozen to investigate the violence the previous month that led to the deaths of at least 16 people.

Kozlov informed officials from the European Parliament and European Commission of the results of this unofficial investigation and was arrested shortly afterward. In October 2012, Kozlov was found guilty of inciting hatred and sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. International and domestic rights organizations complained the trial process was biased, and evidence provided to the court failed to prove Kozlov's guilt.

Tatyana Shevtsova-Valova was charged in January 2015 with inciting ethnic hatred for posting comments on her Facebook page that promoted a Greater Russia (Russian World) and were interpreted as insulting Kazakhs and calling for Russian occupation of Kazakhstan, as in Crimea. She was found guilty in March and given a four-year suspended sentence.

Saken Baikenov was arrested in March 2015. Baikenov was an activist in the Antigeptil movement. Just a small amount of heptyl can be fatal if it comes in contact with the skin, and over the past 20 years several Russian Proton rockets, which regularly use Baikonur, have exploded shortly after liftoff, scattering heptyl over sparsely inhabited areas of Kazakhstan.

Baikenov had posted comments on his Facebook page that were deemed to be anti-Russian. Despite concerns raised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Baikenov was found guilty of violating Article 174 in April, and sentenced to two years of restricted freedom.

Blogger Ermek Taychibekov, from the southern city of Shymkent, wrote in favor of Kazakhstan joining with Russia. Taychibekov was considered a pro-Russian blogger and he attracted the attention of a so-called national patriotic group in Almaty. The group filed a lawsuit, based on Article 174 against Taychibekov, who was convicted in November 2015 and sentenced to four years in prison. Given the opportunity by the court to say some last words, Taychibekov said he still did not understand what the charges against him were.

There was also 54-year-old Adventist Church member Yklas Kabduakasov, arrested in August 2015 for spreading "religious discord." The allegations against Kabduakasov were that he insulted Islam during a conversation with a group of students and had "pressured subordinates at work to adopt Christianity, and beat and dismissed those who refused to do so," according to report from Forum 18.

Kabduakasov's lawyer, Gulmira Shaldykova, told Forum 18 that "the prosecution provided no evidence during the trial of any employee beaten by Kabduakasov, or any facts of him dismissing his employees."

On November 9, 2015, an Astana district court sentenced Kabduakasov to seven years of restricted freedom. But on December 28, the Astana city court ruled that punishment was too lenient and added two years in a labor camp.

Really A Threat?

It's an interesting group of people. Viewed as a threat to regime, it's easy to see why opposition leader Kozlov was charged under Article 174.

It's also not difficult to see why Shevtsova-Valova and Taychibekov were charged. Since pro-Russian separatists seized parts of eastern Ukraine, Kazakhstan's government has been worried about the sizeable Russian population living in northern areas of Kazakhstan, along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.

The cases of Baikenov, Blyayov, Narymbaev, and Mambetalin are a bit more complicated. They are Kazakh nationalists and their activities over the course of several years either went unnoticed by the authorities, which is rather difficult to believe, or, more likely, what the four were writing and saying was condoned by Kazakh authorities.

A creeping nationalist movement in Kazakhstan was cut short when the troubles broke out in eastern Ukraine with the help of Russia.

Some people in the Kazakh government are not happy that Russian rockets explode over Kazakhstan but, as officials, they must restrain their comments. People like Baikenov and Blyayov serve as their surrogates.

So do Narymbaev, Mambetalin, Baikenov, and Taychibekov, who were the nationalist voices of those who preferred to remain anonymous.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq

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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.