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Qishloq Ovozi

There are more than 2 million Uzbek nationals registered as living in Russia, and it is believed that the number of unregistered Uzbek migrants living in the country is at least as high. (file photo)

Uzbek migrant laborers returning from Russia to Uzbekistan to pick up their new biometric passports are being invited by Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) to have a "conversation" after they return.

The "conversation" consists of the migrants being asked if they went to a mosque in Russia, if so, which mosque and who accompanied them to prayers. And in many cases the SNB already knows the answers.

Uzbekistan started issuing biometric passports in November 2011. As of July 1 this year every citizen of Uzbekistan needed to have the new biometric passport to travel outside the country.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been reporting on the welcome migrants laborers have been receiving when they return to their homeland.

"Kahhorjon" from Ferghana Valley told Ozodlik that his 27-year-old younger brother came back to get his new biometric passport. "They came to our home and said they were from the SNB," Kahhorjon said. "They asked, 'Where were you working, what did you do, and in which mosque did you go to pray?'"

Kahhorjon said his brother told the men the name of the mosque. The SNB gents replied, "We have different information." Kahhorjon said it was obvious that the SNB had obtained or collected information about his brother while he was working in Russia, especially which mosque he attended.

Kahhorjon's brother was called in for questioning two more times before receiving his passport after waiting for two and a half months in Uzbekistan.

Abdusalom Ergashev, a rights activist from Ferghana Valley told Ozodlik that the SNB has been strengthening its watch over migrant laborers for some time now.

Uzbekistan, like many countries around the world, is concerned about nationals being exposed to radical or extremist forms of Islam while they are outside the country, then returning home with these potentially dangerous new ideas and concepts. Since the start of this year there have been reports indicating some mosques in Russia have become centers for radicalization and recruitment for foreign jihads.

As of the start of December, Russia's Federal Migration Service said there were 2.147 million Uzbek nationals registered as staying in Russia. The number of unregistered Uzbek migrant laborers is likely at least that high.

Ergashev said attending a mosque in Russia, "especially mosques in Moscow," is now enough reason to arrest returning nationals. Ergashev claimed that there are some mosques in Russia where radical imams are allowed to preach and Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) uses these mosques as bait to lure in, and document young Muslim men who are inclined to listen to calls for jihad.

Ergashev said a friend, "from my neighborhood," worked in Moscow and noticed cameras outside a certain mosque, put there to film those who entered. "If you go there to pray there would be trouble when you return Uzbekistan," the friend said.

Cooperation With Russia?

The SNB also checks mobile phones of returning migrant laborers for audio or video of sermons espousing jihadism. Ergashev said possession of such material is sufficient reason for arrest.

Ergashev noted that Russia's security service, the FSB, and the SNB have worked together in the past. Dozens of Uzbeks working in Russia, and wanted on charges back in Uzbekistan, have vanished from Russian cities and resurfaced later in Uzbek courtrooms and prisons.

One recent example is Uzbek political refugee Umid Yakubov, abducted in broad daylight in Moscow on April 29 while on his way to an interview at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Uzbek authorities suspect Yakubov of membership in the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Amnesty International reported that a policeman pulled over the car in which Yakubov was traveling. "While the police officer was checking the documents of the car's driver, three men, one wearing a police uniform, approached Umid Yakubov and forcibly put him in a minivan. No one has heard from Umid Yakubov since."

The European Court for Human Rights in November 2013 found Russia responsible for the kidnapping and illegal extradition of Uzbek nationals Azamatjon Ermakov and Yusuf Kasymakhunov.

So there is seemingly ample evidence of FSB-SNB cooperation.

There is also the assassination of Fuad Rustamkhojaev from the opposition People's Movement of Uzbekistan, in Ivanovo, Russia in September 2011, which remains unsolved. Some suspect the SNB was responsible. It is not the only killing outside Uzbekistan in which the SNB is suspected of being involved.

Ergashev said that almost all the people Uzbek courts have sentenced on religious charges in recent years were migrant laborers returning from Russia.

The Uzbek human rights group Ezgulik (Mercy) reported in August that a group of more than 60 migrant laborers who returned from Russia to Uzbekistan's southern Kashkadarya Province were arrested and charged with being members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist group.

Copies that were obtained of court documents show the group was accused of becoming IMU members while they were working in Russia from 2010 to 2013.

Ergashev said the situation is similar in the Andijon and Ferghana provinces.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Farruh Yusufiy of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service (Ozodlik)

An ethnic Turkmen who is reportedly leading a militia against the Taliban in Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province

The Taliban has overrun Afghanistan’s Khamyab District and is now Turkmenistan’s immediate neighbor.

Turkmenistan’s border runs along the western, northwestern, and northeastern sides of Khamyab. Turkmenistan’s border guards and security forces have been building walls, digging ditches, and establishing new border posts across the border from Khamyab since early October.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke with Fakir Muhammad Jowzjani, the chief of police for Jowzjan Province where the Khamyab District is located.

Jowzjani said, “Our soldiers went there to take on the Taliban in Khamyab. There was fighting against the Taliban, but our forces were compelled to withdraw. When the soldiers were returning to [the provincial capital] Sheberghan, they came across the Taliban, who were waiting for them, and the soldiers came under attack again.”

Jowzjani said the district counterterrorism chief and two other soldiers were killed in the ambush.

Gaffar, the commander of the local Arbaky force, the civil militia, said his forces also had to retreat from the district.

“The security forces came to Khamyab and we joined them and advanced on several villages. We faced resistance and the soldiers withdrew,” commander Gaffar said. “I did also at the suggestion of the security forces and now I’m in Sheberghan."

Gaffar told Azatlyk he had taken all his fighters with him, effectively leaving the district to the Taliban.

Gaffar said the Taliban had brought up extra fighters from the Akcha district for the assault on Khamyab.

“I had no support,” Gaffar said. “The government force did not stay, so I had to retreat.”

Another Arbaky commander, Gurbandurdy, who has featured in several "Qishloq Ovozi" reports, confirmed Khamyab has fallen. Gurbandurdy, an ethnic Turkmen, commands the Arbaky force in Qarqeen district, which borders Khamyab.

Gurbandurdy said, “The situation in Khamyab has seriously deteriorated. The number of Taliban has increased and they now set the rules in the area.”

And those rules are all too familiar.

One woman, whose name we will not reveal, recounted her story to Azatlyk. This woman was a doctor at a hospital in Khamyab until the Taliban started taking villages in the district. She started receiving phone calls.

“We are the Taliban,” the callers said, then warned her that they did not want female doctors at the hospital.

The callers said she could stay in Khamyab district but that she was not to practice medicine. She fled to Mazar-e Sharif.

A schoolteacher still in the district said he also received phone calls from people identifying themselves as the Taliban. These callers told him the local school principal, who was a woman, had to quit and that all female teachers had to, as well.

The outlying villages in Khamyab are so close to Turkmenistan’s border that border guards from the neighboring country would cross into Khamyab to buy cucumbers and tomatoes.

Khamyab is not the only trouble spot by Turkmenistan’s border.

To the west of Jowzjan, in Faryab Province, violence continues in Qaysar district. A local Arbaky chief, "Boby Commander," said Taliban militants captured the village of Shor in November.

The governor of Faryab Province, Mahmadulla Vatas, told Azatlyk in August that the Taliban was more active and more numerous in his province recently. But Vatas said many of those in the ranks of the Taliban in Faryab were Chechens and members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Emphasizing the precarious situation in Faryab, the provincial intelligence chief was assassinated, most believe by the Taliban, shortly after Vatas spoke to Azatlyk.

Turkmenistan’s government has done very little, and at times almost nothing, to counter this growing security problem south of its border, despite having three border guards and three soldiers killed along the Afghan frontier this year, the most recorded since 1991 independence. The attempt by Turkmenistan’s authorities to court better ties with neighboring areas in Afghanistan, home to mainly ethnic Turkmen, was short lived and by early autumn the government seems to have settled on defensive barriers and fortified posts to contain Afghanistan’s problems.

The result is that, for the first time since late 2001, the Taliban is Turkmenistan’s neighbor again, at least in Khamyab district.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir and Azatlyk correspondent Sahra Ghulam Nabi. Special thanks to the correspondents in Jowzjan, Faryab, Baghdis, and Herat provinces, who are bringing this information to the world

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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.