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Central Asia: Russia Sanctioning Anti-Islamic Crackdown

Russia is offering moral support and material aid to Central Asian states to support a clampdown on what officials say is an Islamist terrorist threat. Human rights activists say Russian support lends legitimacy to arbitrary police action against Muslim activists in countries such as Uzbekistan. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 2 August 2000 (RFE/RL/) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed support for a "tough approach" against Islamic militancy in Central Asia. He's made trips to the region and has actively promoted formation of an anti-terrorism organization within the CIS that would concentrate on fighting religious extremism.

Since then, countries like Uzbekistan have been increasing efforts to crack down on dissent, citing an 'Islamic threat' as the reason.

Human rights organizations fear this trend could spread to other countries -- with tacit Russian approval.

The Taliban victory in Afghanistan, the civil war in Tajikistan, and the hostage-taking incident last year in Kyrgyzstan are all relatively recent events driving this fear of fundamentalism. Russia linked these incidents to incursions by Chechen rebels into Daghestan last August, to justify its war in Chechnya.

In Uzbekistan, many are concerned this general fear of Islamic militancy is being exploited as an excuse to crack down not only on suspected terrorism but on all opposition to President Islam Karimov.

A recent example of this involves Bahodir Hasanov, a devout Muslim and French teacher. Last month he was taken into custody by Uzbek police for a fourth time in a year. The police refuse to disclose his whereabouts or allow him access to a lawyer. They have made no formal charges against him.

Hasanov's father and brother are already in prison for allegedly promoting a banned pro-Islamic organization. Human rights organizations say the arrests follow a pattern of repression that began after a bomb attack in Tashkent in 1999 that was widely seen as an assassination attempt against Karimov. At the time, Karimov denounced the attack as a plot by extremists -- a group he defined as Muslim fundamentalists.

Karimov later named the exiled leader of the banned democratic opposition Erk party, Muhammad Salih, as one of the organizers of the bombing and called for his arrest and extradition to Uzbekistan.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Moscow-based Society for Support of Human Rights in Central Asia say several thousand people in Uzbekistan are in jail for their beliefs. They say that sometimes wearing a beard is enough to brand a man as an extremist.

Abdufattakh Manapov of the Society for Support of Human Rights in Central Asia says Karimov calls all of his opponents extremists because the Islamic threat is so frightening, both in the region and in Russia. Manapov says he worries a recent diplomatic rapprochement between Russia and its southern neighbors could prolong the trend.

Manapov says Putin's past with the former Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, and tough talk on Central Asia's security interests evokes memories of a not-so-distant past when Moscow dominated the region. Back then, the harsh Soviet response to any rebellion induced Central Asia's Soviet nomenklatura to submit.

"I want to make it clear, they got frightened because they are still afraid of the special services and of what they're capable of. What they did with Amin in Afghanistan, what they did in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Hungary in 1956. It's not only that they remember this, it's stored in their collective memory. So that scared them, and they turned to Russia."

The recent criticism by the international community of the conduct of elections in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan have given those countries another reason to look to Russia for support.

Cassandra Cavanaugh is a regional expert at Human Rights Watch. She tells RFE/RL that while Russia has played a minor role in Uzbekistan's interior policy, a recent Russian-Uzbek rapprochement gives human rights workers cause for concern. She says Russia shares with Uzbekistan a tendency to label any form of dissent as being the work of "extremists."

Recent events illustrate this. Chechnya's Russian-appointed administrator Akhmad Kadyrov recently outlawed "Wahabbism" -- the name given to violent Muslim fundamentalists. Similar prohibitions have been proposed as amendments to Russia's law on religious freedom, expected be discussed by the Duma in September.

Manapov says Russian forces have arrested and deported dozens of people -- including some Russian citizens -- wanted by Uzbek authorities. He says the new CIS initiative from last June -- a joint anti-terrorist center based in Moscow -- could be a new base for common action.

"This year we don't know the dynamics yet, but we are worried by the fact that a center for combatting terrorism was created in Moscow, by the broad definition of the concepts of terrorism and extremism employed by some of the countries that are the founders of the center -- first and foremost Uzbekistan."

He says Uzbekistan's use of the word "extremist" to brand political opponents could be a model for other countries.