A court in the Uzbek capital Tashkent gave suspended sentences to seven women on July 9 for their alleged membership in the banned religious group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Another Uzbek woman, found guilty of similar charges, was sentenced to three years in prison.
And in neighboring Tajikistan, Mutabar Bobojonova -- a woman who lives in the northern village Isfisor -- was arrested in June on suspicion of supporting the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Experts in Central Asia point out that Hizb ut-Tahrir has been trying to recruit more women in the region and that compared to other political parties -- those both officially registered and underground groups -- it has been successful on that front.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is officially banned in all Central Asian countries, though the U.S. State Department does not consider it a terrorist organization.
Top political leaders and senior officials in law-enforcement agencies in Central Asia -- especially in Uzbekistan -- have severely criticized the group, branding it a terrorist organization that threatens the stability of the whole region.
Hundreds of alleged supporters of the group have reportedly been arrested, tortured, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, according to Amnesty International, the human-rights watchdog.
Sanya Sagnaeva, a senior analyst at the regional office of the International Crisis Group in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, says that since it is deemed an illegal group it is easier for Hizb ut-Tahrir to continue with the help of female supporters because the authorities do not usually suspect women of being involved in political campaigns.
"Women's interest in this party might be linked to the fact that the party itself puts emphasis on working with women, and that is because -- according to Central Asian traditions -- there is a lower possibility of women being prosecuted [by the state]," she says.
There are no official statistics on the exact number of members in the underground group living in Central Asia.
Experts put the number of Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters in the region at up to 15,000. However, the group itself claims that it has hundreds of thousand of members and supporters, including many women.
The group says its campaign is entirely peaceful.
Law-enforcement agencies in Central Asia say they usually confiscate Hizb ut-Tahrir's booklets and other literature, which usually call on people to overthrow their government and create an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia.
Most of the women imprisoned for alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir membership were found guilty of distributing the leaflets and trying to recruit more members.
Ikbal Mirsaidov, an expert at the Presidential Center for International Strategic Studies in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, says that with thousands of people being arrested and imprisoned for alleged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir over the past decade, it is inevitable that the group would find support among women.
That is because, Mirsaidov says, most of the female supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir are family members of those who have been imprisoned by authorities.
"Most of these women who have now become politically active have seen their husbands, brothers, or fathers being prosecuted for Hizb ut-Tahrir membership," she says. "This is why they are reacting to their family member's imprisonment by law-enforcement authorities."
The leader of the Social Democratic Party in Tajikistan's northern Sughd region, Dilbar Samadova, says that while government authorities claim that there are thousands of followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir operating in the country, officially registered political parties are having difficulty gaining support among the population.
Samadova says Tajiks, especially women, are becoming more indifferent to politics altogether and mistrust both the government and the opposition.
Alone And Poor
Samadova says she suspects the Hizb ut-Tahrir is taking advantage of widespread poverty and the fact that hundreds of thousands of men have left for seasonal work in Russia, leaving their wives as the head of the household and their families during their husbands' absence.
According to Samadova, Hizb ut-Tahrir -- which reportedly gets financial support from some foreign countries -- might provide money to the women in order to win their support.
"Women carry most of the burden of their family's everyday lives," she said. "The women's social and economic situation is appalling."
An Uzbek woman convicted of being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who did not want to give her name, said she was released from a Tajik prison under the presidential amnesty in June. She said she had been sentenced to five years in prison and lived among "convicted criminals." But despite this experience, she said her time in prison she did not change her beliefs.
"I think you cannot change a person by sentencing him to lengthy prison terms," she said. "Change should come from inside the person."
Banned In Central Asia
According to experts, imprisoned Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been using prisons as a place to spread their beliefs and attract new supporters.
Officially recognizing Hizb ut-Tahrir and allowing it to participate in elections would spare many people from being imprisoned and keep the wives and daughters of jailed men from turning against the authorities.
But it seems unlikely that any governments in Central Asia would be willing to officially recognize Hizb ut-Tahrir anytime soon.
In fact, the office of the Dushanbe city prosecutor suggested last week to include Hizb ut-Tahrir on the official list of terrorist groups.
The Osh-based analyst Sagnaeva says Hizb ut-Tahrir will be around for many more years, operating in Central Asia secretly and attracting support from both men and women.
(Soljida Djakhfarova, the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, contributed to this report.)
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