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Uzbekistan: Government Seeks To Improve Human Rights Image, But Some Question Motives

During recent weeks, Uzbek law-enforcement organizations have taken steps to improve the government's negative human rights image. Foreign correspondents were allowed to meet two arrested members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, some family members linked to the IMU have returned to the country under a presidential amnesty, and law-enforcement officials are organizing for foreign journalists a special tour of Jaslik prison. These steps are being assessed by some observers as a sign the secular government is softening its policy toward radical Islamic groups, while others are more doubtful about the motives.

Prague, 26 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, the normally secretive National Security Service of Uzbekistan opened its doors to journalists for the first time in its history. The reason was to allow two members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had been arrested during the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan to make public confessions.

The IMU, an armed group that seeks the creation of an Islamic state in Central Asia, is recognized by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. It is believed to maintain bases in Afghanistan for operations against Tashkent and other targets.

The Uzbek authorities are also currently organizing a tour for foreign journalists, including an RFE/RL correspondent, of the notorious Jaslik prison in remote Karakalpakstan. Jaslik is said to house primarily religious prisoners and is known by Human Rights Watch as "the place from which no one returns."

And last week, officials from the Security Service told international correspondents in Tashkent that more than 100 family members of IMU fighters had voluntarily returned to Uzbekistan from Pakistan under an amnesty issued in 2000 by President Islam Karimov. The amnesty applies to the families of members of radical Islamic groups who themselves have not been involved in terrorist acts or other serious crimes.

So far, only Husayn Alimov, the 21-year-old son of an IMU member who died in Afghanistan, has made himself available to the press. After his return from Pakistan with his mother and three young sisters, Alimov called foreign news agencies, confessed to having at one time been influenced by radical Islamic ideology, and thanked the Uzbek government for helping with his return and with that of his family.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Alimov was appreciative of the presidential amnesty. "Our relatives met us happily when we got off the plane [in Tashkent]. They [government officials] are also treating us very well. My situation is good. I'm living freely [since I came back]. Officials themselves are helping me a lot. They prepared my passport and all the necessary documents. Our government is serving me really well," Alimov said.

In his interviews with foreign journalists, Alimov said he had not taken part in any terrorist acts but had been studying Islam under the Taliban in one of Kabul's mosques. He said that now, with the government's support, he would like to set up his own business in Uzbekistan.

Alimov's positive statements about the government have raised suspicions among human rights advocates in Uzbekistan. They suspect Alimov's statements of being part of a larger scheme of forced confessions and organized returns organized by Uzbek security officials to improve the government's image abroad.

Vasila Inoyatova is the chairwoman of Ezgulik (Virtue), a human rights organization in Uzbekistan that mostly deals with religious prisoners. She said she is skeptical about the government's motives. "These kind of things happened several times before, too. For example, [security officials] brought about 40 members of Hezb ut-Tahrir from a prison to a crowded mosque. Prisoners were told that if they asked for forgiveness and confessed their mistakes, they would be released from jail. Local newspapers wrote that these men asked to talk to the public and seek forgiveness. Then I talked to their parents. It appears that they were immediately taken back to the prison from the mosque. Since then, the bodies of three or four of them have been sent back home. All of them are still serving 13 to 20 years of imprisonment. What happened in the mosque was a show. I think now the same is being repeated," Inoyatova said.

Hezb ut-Tahrir is a movement that also advocates the creation of a regionwide Islamic caliphate and a return to Islam in its pure, original form. To date, however, Hezb ut-Tahrir has staged no acts of violence and its goals in the region remain unclear. Nonetheless, scores of its members have been arrested and sentenced to prison.

Uzbek sociologist Bakhodir Musaev said he is cautiously optimistic that some law-enforcement officials are beginning to understand that using force against Islamic groups often backfires by increasing social and political tensions inside the country. "A tree grows outside, but its roots go inside the soil. So far, we were cutting only the top of the tree, while its roots were inside the ground. That's why it is impossible to solve the problem by using violent methods. The most important thing is that we must show to the people that something has moved forward, something has started improving in the society. Otherwise, for the time being, everything is getting worse and worse. Living conditions are worsening," Musaev said.

The deputy chief of the Uzbek Interior Ministry's antiterrorism department, Ilya Pyagay, said nothing has changed in the government's policy toward radical Islamic groups and that law-enforcement bodies are continuing their work as before.

He said a number of family members have asked for forgiveness and have been pardoned during the last two years. Pyagay told RFE/RL that antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan have seriously damaged groups such as the IMU, thus making Uzbek family members, who had been financially supported by the IMU, consider returning to their homeland.

Pyagay added that law-enforcement officials will be watching these people, analyzing the true reasons for their return. "We try to follow them, watch them, and talk to them further. This is a natural work process. At the same time, I can say that a person returning [and asking for forgiveness] is free from criminal responsibility. It is a fact that people are returning. If a person has got through all that and understood that it was delusion, why do we need to push him into a corner?" Pyagay said.

While sociologist Musaev and other observers believe the Uzbek government may be sincere in its amnesties in order to lessen sociopolitical tensions in the country, Inoyatova of the Ezgulik human rights group believes the latest moves are simply a ruse. "Last year, the president himself called for those who had not taken up weapons and had not [been involved in bloodshed] to ask forgiveness. There were 10 to 15 people who came and asked to be pardoned [under the presidential amnesty]. All of them were later arrested. Today, there are so many people in prisons [who have never been involved in any bloodshed]. For instance, Hezb ut-Tahrir members have [never been involved in bloodshed]. Nevertheless, they are serving 20 years in prison. This is another trap," Inoyatova said.

Inoyatova is also skeptical the Uzbek government is softening its policy toward radical Islamic groups. She said real proof of a change in attitude would be if the government would release an estimated 7,000 religious prisoners under the presidential amnesty and make fewer arrests of peaceful Muslims.