PRAGUE, July 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It is virtually impossible to estimate the size or composition of Hizb ut-Tahrir's membership in Central Asia. The movement is banned in most places.
But some observers say anecdotal evidence suggests the group's core of younger members is growing.
Youth See No Future
Vitaly Ponomaryov runs a human rights monitoring program that focuses on Central Asia for the Moscow-based nonprofit group Memorial. He says circumstantial evidence points to desperate youths who turn to Hizb ut-Tahrir out of frustration with the system -- in Uzbekistan, for instance.
"If we look at trials, and also based on my own meetings [with Hizb ut-Tahrir members], most members of Hizb ut-Tahrir are young people who do not see future of their country within the system created by [Uzbek] President Islam Karimov," he said.
Twenty-nine alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members are currently on trial on charges related to the group's activities in Uzbekistan. The youngest of those defendants is 19, and most of the others are under the age of 30.
Nonviolent But Banned
Uzbekistan is ruled by one of the region's most repressive regimes -- including a long-running campaign to prosecute Hizb ut-Tahrir sympathizers. It also appears to have a relatively high number of Hizb ut-Tahrir members.
But neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan have also banned Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In Kyrgyzstan, former President Askar Akaev used to allow Hizb ut-Tahrir members to organize informational and even charitable events despite the ban.
Amid fears of increased Hizb ut-Tahrir sympathy, current President Kurmanbek Bakiev has cracked down on such activities. Bakiev now says Hizb ut-Tahrir is a militant group that should be eliminated.
Kyrgyz authorities say there are recent signs of cooperation between Hizb ut-Tahrir and an avowedly violent Islamist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). They cite events in southern Kyrgyzstan, where police reportedly found weapons in Hizb ut-Tahrir hideouts.
Kyrgyz National Security Service official Talant Razzakov spoke recently to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. He drew an implicit ideological and operational link between Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU.
Ties To The IMU?
"Only those who 'graduated' from the [Hizb ut-Tahrir] school can subsequently join the IMU," he said. Hizb ut-Tahrir representatives have consistently rejected violence as a tool, and say they have no ties to the IMU.
Sultonbek Badalov is a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Jalal-Abad, in southern Kyrgyzstan. Speaking to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, he claims there is animosity and cooperation is out of the question.
"[Violence] is absolutely alien to us," he said. "Many say [Hizb ut-Tahrir] is with the IMU, led by Tahir Yuldosh. Recently Tahir Yuldosh released [audio] disks on which he spoke out against us. [Mutual cooperation] is absolutely impossible, as it goes against our ideology and our principles."
Observers warn that the factors that contribute to recruitment of new Hizb ut-Tahrir members in the region remain.
Aalybek Akunov is a professor of political studies at Kyrgyz National University. He tells RFE/RL that poverty and high unemployment encourage young people to join in the areas around the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border.
"The main reason is, of course, an economic one -- poverty among people living in that area," Akunov said. "There are many unemployed people. The economic future is precarious. There is despair and exhaustion. They are tired of waiting for changes in government policy on both sides [of the border]."
Akunov warns that Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas will continue to resonate unless economic problems are solved.
But Memorial's Ponomaryov says there is more than simply economic hardship to blame. He says a lack of political and other freedoms plays a significant role.
"The situation in which there is unjustified repression by the authorities, the fabrication of criminal charges -- when people see clear injustice, they start perceiving repressed people as victims of the fight for justice," he said. "They get a sense of solidarity. Some of them start saying, 'If justice can't be achieved by peaceful means, more radical ways should be found.' In this regard, Uzbekistan is a highly illustrative example. There, repression begun by [President] Karimov in late 1990s became the main instrument of destabilization in the whole region."
Hizb ut-Tahrir member Badalov insists that government repression has increased the group's popularity.
"The people have already seen the governments' slander against us," he said. "They understood that it is slander and provocation. The authorities can blame us, but the people already know very well that we won't do anything like [carrying out acts of violence]."
Badalov denies resorting to violence. But could other Hizb ut-Tahrir members take up arms in the future?
Memorial's Ponomaryov says that Hizb ut-Tahrir -- as a whole -- is unlikely to change its methods. But he warns that many of its younger members might respond to repression with increased militarism, perhaps splitting off from Hizb ut-Tahrir to take up arms against governments in Central Asia.