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A source close to the State Security Service told RFE/RL said most of the approximately 1,500 Uzbek students who were brought back from Egypt in recent months were from the Ferghana Valley, one of the most conservative religious regions in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is once again worrying about where some of its citizens are studying Islam and officials in the country and its embassies in Egypt and Turkey are taking measures to ease these concerns.

The Uzbek government has apparently recalled some 1,500 young people studying at religious schools in Egypt in recent months.

The reasons are still vague, but Uzbek authorities are not only working to bring back some of their citizens studying Islam in Egypt and Turkey, they are also tightening control over who leaves the country to study religion abroad.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, said a representative from the Uzbek Embassy in Egypt confirmed in a June 9 phone call that the prestigious Al-Azhar University would now only accept an Uzbek student of religion after Uzbekistan's Committee for Religious Affairs of the Cabinet of Ministers had given an official recommendation for that particular student.

The embassy claimed that according to the administration at Al-Azhar, hundreds of students from Uzbekistan had not been attending their courses or taking exams. The Uzbek Embassy representative in Cairo called this an "alarming fact."

RFE/RL spoke with a person connected to Uzbekistan's State Security Service (DXX). Speaking under condition of anonymity, this person said most of the approximately 1,500 Uzbek students who were brought back from Egypt in recent months were from the Ferghana, Andijon, and Namangan provinces in Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley, one of the most conservative religious regions in Central Asia.

The embassy in Egypt posted a statement on its website expressing concern that "most citizens" were being taught at dubious "establishments and centers" in Cairo. The source close to the DXX said in many cases these students had flown to Dubai on one-week visas and from there traveled to Egypt.

Ozodlik also noted that in Turkey, at least three madrasahs where Uzbek students were studying were recently closed by the Turkish security service.

Additionally, the source connected to the DXX said that in the first five months of 2021, some 1,800 minors had been stopped at Uzbekistan's borders as they attempted to travel to Egypt to study at religious schools.

Ozodlik's sources said these young people and many of the students in Egypt and Turkey were being sent there, but the sources did not say who was sending them abroad for religious education.

Mubashshir Ahmad is the founder of the Zon.uz website. He studied at Al-Azhar in the 1990s. Ahmad called the Uzbek government's actions "interference" in people's constitutional right to education.

Ahmad has helped arrange for Uzbek citizens to attend madrasahs in Egypt and he claimed that about one month ago, the Foreign Ministry declared "hundreds" of Uzbek citizens in Egypt to be on a "wanted list," including some who were teaching at madrasahs.

Ahmad said an acquaintance had recently returned to Uzbekistan from the Middle East and was questioned about religious schools. He said others had also been questioned upon return to their homeland.

This is not the first time Uzbekistan has recalled religious students studying at foreign schools. In 1997, the Uzbek authorities brought back some 2,000 students from Turkey after hearing that Islamic clerics from fundamentalist sects had been trying to recruit them.

Some were studying the works of the late Kurdish Sunni Muslim theologian Said Nursi, and for more than 10 years after this recall there were arrests and prosecutions in Uzbekistan of people for distributing or teaching the well-known Nursi's works.

Uyghur women walk through a security checkpoint to enter a bazaar in Hotan, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Lawyers for Uyghur groups have given new evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that allegedly shows the Tajik government is cooperating with Beijing to send Uyghurs to China, where they face detention and often much worse.

Tajikistan is not the only country targeted in the complaint submitted to the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor. Cambodia is reported to be another country that allegedly succumbed to Chinese pressure to detain and illegally extradite Uyghurs.

Numerous reports have claimed that the Chinese authorities have put more than 1 million Uyghurs and thousands of other mostly Muslim indigenous minorities in so-called reeducation camps, located mainly in the Uyghurs' traditional homeland in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China.

The Chinese say the camps are for vocational training and deny mistreatment of its occupants, despite testimony of detainees and other evidence suggesting otherwise.

Some rights groups say the involuntary incarceration and other more sinister acts against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and ethnic Chinese Hui are part of a campaign to eradicate Islam and the cultures of these ethnic minorities from Chinese society.

Tajikistan and Cambodia are included in the official complaint because they are members of the ICC.

China is not an ICC member and so is outside the ICC's jurisdiction. "China is not a signed-up member of the ICC...[and believes it] cannot be investigated for what is happening," says Rodney Dixon, one of the lawyers handling the legal process for the Uyghur groups. "The fact is that we are now in a position where there is a very clear legal pathway to allow for the ICC to commence its investigations."

One of the places this investigation could begin is in Tajikistan.

According to a press release from the East Turkistan Government in Exile, one of the Uyghur groups trying to bring the case before the ICC, "Chinese authorities have committed unlawful acts including arrests, enforced disappearances, abductions, and deportations in Tajikistan, an ICC State Party."

The evidence that legal consul for the East Turkistan Government in Exile, the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, and individual Uyghur victims handed to the ICC prosecutor on June 10 purports that "members of the Chinese Public Security Bureau who are present in Tajikistan direct local Tajik police to carry out raids on the areas where Uyghurs live and work." It adds that those Uyghurs who did not have "correct paperwork" were "then deported back into China by Chinese authorities in small groups of up to 10 to avoid international attention."

The press release also provides a shocking figure, stating that "evidence gathered to date shows that over the past 10-15 years the number of Uyghurs living in Tajikistan has been reduced from an estimated 3,000 to approximately 100" and that most of these Uyghurs left Tajikistan "from 2016 to 2018."

There is also evidence that Tajikistan has played a role in facilitating the extraordinary rendition of Uyghurs from Turkey.

Radio Free Asia reported in August 2019 that "at least three ethnic Uyghurs have recently been deported to China from Turkey via Tajikistan."

Those three were Zinnetgul Tursun "and her two toddler daughters," all of whom were detained in Izmir, Turkey, and put on a July 31, 2019, flight from Istanbul to Dushanbe. Two Tajik passengers on that same flight said they saw how Tursun and her young children were taken into custody by Chinese police at the Dushanbe airport.

And they were not alone. The Tajik passengers said they saw five other people on the flight -- four women and a man -- who appeared to be Uyghurs on the flight.

Tursun's family in China later confirmed Zinnetgul and her children had been brought to China.

The identities and the fate of the other five people on the plane from Istanbul to Dushanbe, whom the Tajik passengers said looked to be Uyghurs, is unknown.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, sent a request for information to Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office about the accusations that Uyghurs were being brought from Turkey and handed over to Chinese security officials in Dushanbe, but did not receive a reply.

The legal team for the Uyghur groups originally submitted their complaint to the ICC prosecutor in July 2020, but it said it required further evidence to initiate an investigation.

According to the East Turkistan Government in Exile's website, the new evidence handed over on June 10 establishes "that the court has jurisdiction to open an investigation into the crimes being committed against Uyghurs by Chinese authorities."

Dixon said after handing over the new evidence that it "shows a highly organized and systematic plan by the Chinese authorities to round up Uyghurs living in an ICC State Party and deport them back into China, where they are never heard from again."

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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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

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.

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