Two trials are currently under way in northern Kazakhstan against some 40 members of two banned Islamic groups that shed light on what Kazakh authorities say are the nefarious schemes of some of these groups to cause disorder in the country and topple the government.
"All of this hysteria about the so-called battle against extremism and terrorism is nothing more than the desire of the [Kazakh] government to have another instrument to exert control [over society]."
In the first trial, the Kazybiysky Court in the northern city of Karaganda on August 1 began hearing a case against 30 members of the banned Islamic group Hizb-ut Tahrir. The group aims to create an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, though it publicly rejects using violence to achieve this goal.
Hizb-ut Tahrir On Trial
Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) spokeswoman Botagoz Ibraeva gave RFE/RL's Kazakh Service some details about the suspects in the case.
"Among those facing trial are [Hizb-ut Tahrir] leaders throughout all the regions [of Kazakhstan], financial managers, and publishers of their literature," she said.
The 30 suspects were arrested in December. The KNB spent six months investigating those on trial, questioning more than 300 witnesses and seizing some 35,000 Hizb-ut Tahrir leaflets, six computers, and several illegal small printing houses were dismantled. The defendants are charged with forming a criminal group, fomenting religious hatred, and carrying out extremist activities.
KNB Deputy Chairman Vladimir Bozhko said steps need to be taken against groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir -- even if the group advocates only peaceful means to bring change -- because members could be tempted later to take a more active role in reaching their goal.
"Measures must be taken, especially with regard to organizations that help spread religious extremism in one way or another which, as a rule, grows into terrorism," he said.
Ibraeva told RFE/RL that some former Hizb-ut Tahrir members have been speaking out against participating in banned groups.
"Some Hizb-ut Tahrir leaders who understood the extremist nature of this organization's teachings have cooperated with law-enforcement officers and helped locate the party's branches," she said. "They have called on their former comrades to quit the party with pleas broadcast via local media outlets."
The other trial -- which is being held in the northern city of Stepnogorsk -- is more mysterious than the Hizb-ut Tahrir trial. Ibraeva also spoke to RFE/RL about it.
"On July 30 in the Stepnogorsk City Court a trial started against a group of people accused of organizing and operating a terrorist group, illegal purchases, the sale and possession of weapons and explosives, and igniting interethnic hatred in society," she said. "Ten people are facing these charges. The KNB investigation was started in December 2006."
Those 10 defendants are accused of planning terrorist attacks in the area around the capital, Astana, and the commercial capital Almaty. According to the KNB, the defendants planned to rob banks, kidnap people, and stage attacks on police stations and administrative buildings with the ultimate aim of creating an Islamic caliphate in Kazakhstan.
Exactly who these people are is not entirely clear. The KNB describes them as members of groups inspired by Wahhabist teachings, adding that several weapons and a large amount of ammunition were seized from its members along with maps of intended targets.
Extremists Or State Tool?
Many people remain unconvinced that the people on trial in Stepnogorsk are terrorists, since most of the charges against them appear to be the kind of accusations made against common criminals.
Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that call the people on trial in Stepnogorsk terrorists is rather exaggerated.
"All of this hysteria about the so-called battle against extremism and terrorism is nothing more than the desire of the [Kazakh] government to have another instrument to exert control [over society]," she said.
Fokina said the KNB has been trying to improve its image after some of its members were found guilty of involvement in the murder of a leading opposition figure last year.
Fokina repeated a frequently made charge that many security agencies in Central Asia are using the battle against terrorism to jail political opponents or are labeling simple criminals as terrorists to demonstrate to the world community that their countries are part of the international struggle against extremism and terrorism.
(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and Kazakh Service correspondents Baurzhan Shayakhmet and Danabek Bimenov in Kazakhstan contributed to this report.)