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Uzbekistan: Dissident Imam Reaches Safety After Eight Years In Hiding

(RFE/RL) Uzbek dissident Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov has been recognized as a UN refugee and given political asylum in Europe. Nazarov has been in hiding since 1998 -- ever since Tashkent authorities accused him of religious extremism and terrorism. Nazarov and his family flew today from Kazakhstan to an undisclosed location, ending eight years in which they and dozens of followers have been intimidated, persecuted, and even jailed.

PRAGUE, March 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Narasimha Rao, a protection officer for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency in Almaty, confirmed to RFE/RL that Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov and family members were given asylum in Western Europe but refused to disclose where for security reasons.

Rao also dismissed Uzbek authorities' accusations that Nazarov was involved in terrorist and extremist activity in Uzbekistan.

Uzbek authorities jailed his two assistants, three brothers, and his driver for alleged extremism. His wife was also jailed, but released after international pressure was applied. His eldest son, Khusnutdin, disappeared in Tashkent in May 2004.

"If we had found him associated with terrorism or extremism we would have excluded him," he said. "We believe that he is a refugee needing an international protection. That's how we provided him the refugee status and protection."

Popular Preacher

Imam Nazarov gained popularity in the late 1980s after it became possible to preach religion in the formerly communist Soviet state. By the mid-1990s, thousands of people were coming to Tashkent's Tokhtaboi Mosque to listen to Nazarov's sermons while recordings of his prayers were sold throughout Central Asia. This irritated Uzbek authorities who feared Islamic influence and tried to keep it under control.

The Uzbek State Board for Spiritual Affairs dismissed Nazarov as an imam in 1996 and he was put under surveillance. He was briefly detained in 1997, a move that triggered public protests.

Nazarov went into hiding in March 1998 after his sympathizers warned him that he would soon be rearrested.

He was accused of terrorism and religious extremism, including links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Uzbek authorities labeled the IMU, which is a radical militant group, a terrorist organization after it raided some southern regions of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1998 and 1999. The IMU was also included on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations starting in 2000.

Alleged Extremist Ties

Many independent observers, however, disputed the alleged links between Nazarov and any terrorist group.

John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), tells RFE/RL that Nazarov fell victim to the Uzbek government's crackdown on mullahs who wanted to preach Islam independently from the state. MacLeod knew Nazarov personally from 1996-97.

"He was really a part of an earlier phase of events in Uzbekistan when the state religion was entirely in confrontation with independent imams and mullahs such as Obidkhon and a number of others," MacLeod said.

For a long time, there was no information about Nazarov's whereabouts. Rumors occasionally spread that he was abducted by the Uzbek security service while hiding in neighboring Kazakhstan.

Authorities arrested dozens of people accused of being followers of Nazarov. Uzbek authorities jailed his two assistants, three brothers, and his driver for alleged extremism. His wife was also jailed, but released after international pressure was applied. His eldest son, Khusnutdin, disappeared in Tashkent in May 2004.

Some rumors said Khusnutdin Nazarov fled to Kazakhstan, where he was arrested by Kazakh police and handed over to the Uzbek security service.

Astana Helpful

Rao says Nazarov approached the UNHCR last November after some Uzbek refugees were reportedly detained by Kazakh police and deported back to Uzbekistan.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, Rao praised Kazakh authorities for cooperating with the UN agency.

"The credit has to be given to the Kazakh authorities," he said. "Once we recognized [Nazarov] as a refugee, we informed them that he is under the protection of [the] UNHCR. So Kazakh authorities have honored their...national obligation and let him stay in the country until the UNHCR organized the third-country settlement. And today, when he wanted to depart, the authorities let him leave the country."

The UN's praise of Kazakh authorities comes ahead of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's official visit to Uzbekistan on 19 March.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

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