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Central Asia Report: March 27, 2006

27 March 2006, Volume 6, Number 9

WEEK AT A GLANCE (March 13-19). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Uzbekistan for bilateral cooperation talks with his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov. The two leaders, never known to harbor personal warmth for each other, managed a cordial meeting and signed minor accords. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman visited Kazakhstan, where he urged Nazarbaev to speed up talks on transporting Kazakh oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. On the domestic political front, parliament rejected a motion to hold a closed-door session on the recent killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev. And an official at the Kazakh Embassy in Bishkek said that Kyrgyzstan owes Kazakhstan $19.5 million for the unsanctioned diversion of natural gas.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament laid the groundwork for a no-confidence vote in the government, instructing a committee to prepare the legal justification for a vote. But Prime Minister Feliks Kulov shrugged off the preparations, telling cabinet members not to react to the move and describing legislators as "children." Former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov, head of the opposition Asaba Party, said that when he was dismissed as prosecutor-general in September 2005, his investigation of the "Aksy events" -- in which police killed six people during a 2002 demonstration -- was "70 percent complete." Beknazarov noted that if the investigation is to be finished, President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was prime minister at the time, "must appear as a witness in the case on the Aksy events."

Jan Kubis, European Union special representative for Central Asia, met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. Kubis offered praise, saying, "The situation in Tajikistan is stable, and positive growth is being observed." Kubis also met with opposition party leaders, noting that the case of Democratic Party head Muhmamadruzi Iskandarov, who was sentenced to a 23-year prison term in October 2005, is under EU observation.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirmed that two RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents were detained for "hooliganism." Turkmen authorities charged that the two disrupted a town-hall meeting; international press-freedom organizations condemned the correspondents' detention as an attempt to muzzle an independent media outlet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry blasted Ukraine for what it called a "delay" by Ukraine in settling the $158.9 million debt Ashgabat says Kyiv owes for previous natural-gas shipments. The two countries signed a debt-settlement protocol in early March, but they have traded public barbs since then on specifics. Another Ukrainian delegation is expected in Ashgabat shortly to continue negotiations. President Saparmurat Niyazov confirmed that he will visit China on April 2-7 for talks on energy-sector cooperation and a possible natural-gas pipeline for exports of Turkmen gas to China.

Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry stripped a Deutsche Welle correspondent of his accreditation for what it called an inaccurate story. In an application of new rules on foreign media outlets, the ministry also warned an unaccredited Deutsche Welle stringer that regulations specifically forbid unaccredited Uzbek citizens from working as representatives of foreign media. The UN confirmed that Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, who vanished from Uzbekistan in 1998 as the authorities accused him of extremist ties, has received political asylum in Europe after living incognito in Kazakhstan for years. A World Bank official said that a freeze on new lending to Uzbekistan is not politically motivated. And a court sentenced eight men to prison terms of up to six years for religious extremism, while another group of eight men on trial on similar charges alleged that they gave false confessions after beatings and threats of rape.

THE EXPERIENCE OF A DETAINED TURKMEN JOURNALIST. Two RFE/RL correspondents working in Turkmenistan disappeared earlier this month. It later emerged that Turkmen authorities detained them. Their detention sparked letters of concern from many international human-rights organizations and eventually the two were released after 10 days in custody. No direct contact with them was possible until March 22, when RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in Prague spoke with Meret Khommadov, one of the detained journalists.

Khommadov spoke first about his physical condition, but he indicated that he was under the surveillance of security officials at his home in Turkmenistan.

"Now I feel well," he said. "Very well. But in the village during all these days the [National Security Ministry or MNB] officers or some other security force employees are keeping watch over us."

Khommadov and his colleague, RFE/RL correspondent Jumadurdy Ovezov, were picked up by police on March 7. Khommadov explained what happened to them after they were taken from their homes.

"On March 7 at 8 a.m. we were taken, probably by a police officer, to the police station," he said. "We were waiting for two hours at the police station. Then we were taken to the Hakimlik [the Mary provincial governor's office]. There were a lot of [village elders] there who talked to us. They were shouting, calling us traitors. They were very aggressive toward us. They promised to evict us from the village and not let us live there. Then [the village elders] made accusations against us, using harsh language and sentenced us to 15 days of community service. [My colleague] did not say anything. However, he was also arrested. They put pressure on me, saying that I trained Juma to work for [RFE/RL]. At the meeting, the officers of the security forces continued to put pressure on me -- interrupting my comments and trying to stop me from speaking. They took us to that meeting by force."

The two were put in jail. Khommadov described the conditions inside his cell: "We were kept in the [southern] town of Mary, in a solitary confinement cell," he continued. "There are no conveniences there, only a metal bed without any mattress or sheets. There are cockroaches, lice. You have to stay together with people suffering from tuberculosis and drug abusers. There was no food except one piece of bread and at noon some kind of cereal we ate without any spoon."

Those questioning Khommadov and Ovezov -- who are both 54 years old -- threatened to charge them with being traitors and fomenting interreligious hatred. Eventually the two correspondents had to sign confessions to obtain their release.

"When they questioned us both in the police station, and the governor's office, they recorded the whole conversation on video," he said. "They forced us to sign a paper where we had to confess and ask for an early release. That is how I got released."

But signing the papers was not all they had to do.

"We signed some papers that said one thing -- but orally they warned us not to cooperate with [RFE/RL]," he says. "They said the radio was working with bad people who are traitors and they named all the people who cooperated with Radio Liberty, like [former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was convicted in 2003 of plotting to kill Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and has since been jailed], [and] drug addicts and people who were traitors during World War II. They said it was not good to [work for RFE/RL]."

Khommadov and Ovezov were released on March 17 and taken back to their home village, but not before receiving a warning. "They told us not to speak out against government policies, saying if we did not follow what they said they would 'smash us' and they wouldn't stop with this and continue dealing with our family members and children in the same way," he said.

"Before that, on February 18, the authorities came to our home and questioned us about all our family members, even about those who died some years ago. I kept silent about that. They summoned me to the police station but I didn't come. And then on February 22 they cut my phone line and continued doing so regularly. When [RFE/RL] tried to call me they cut the line as soon as you said 'hello.'"

Khommadov said the situation with Ovezov, who suffers from kidney problems, is not good. "Juma complains about pain in his kidneys," he said. "We are under constant surveillance. People are around my house and Juma's house, watching. He cannot leave. At night his son came to me and said his father was ill and asked me to come. Then Juma told me he was sick and he didn't know what to do. He said, 'if I go to the doctor [I'm afraid] he might give me the wrong injection and kill me.'"

Khommadov said the uncomfortable conditions in the cell contributed to Ovezov's current condition. RFE/RL has thus far been unable to contact Ovezov. (By Bruce Pannier, with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Originally published on March 22.)

DISSIDENT UZBEK IMAM REACHES SAFETY AFTER EIGHT YEARS IN HIDING. Uzbek dissident Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov has been declared a UN refugee and given political asylum in Europe. Nazarov has been in hiding since 1998 -- ever since Tashkent authorities accused him of religious extremism and terrorism. Nazarov and his family flew on March 16 from Kazakhstan to an undisclosed location, ending eight years in which they and dozens of followers have been intimidated, persecuted, and even jailed.

Narasimha Rao, a protection officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Almaty, confirmed to RFE/RL that Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov and family members were given asylum in Western Europe but refused to disclose where for security reasons.

Rao also dismissed Uzbek authorities' accusations that Nazarov was involved in terrorist and extremist activity in Uzbekistan. "If we had found him associated with terrorism or extremism we would have excluded him," he said. "We believe that he is a refugee needing an international protection. That's how we provided him the refugee status and protection."

Popular Preacher

Imam Nazarov gained popularity in the late 1980s after it became possible to preach religion in the formerly communist Soviet state. By the mid-1990s, thousands of people were coming to Tashkent's Tokhtaboi Mosque to listen to Nazarov's sermons while recordings of his prayers were sold throughout Central Asia. This irritated the Uzbek authorities, who feared Islamic influence and tried to keep it under control.

The Uzbek State Board for Spiritual Affairs dismissed Nazarov as an imam in 1996 and he was put under surveillance. He was briefly detained in 1997, a move that triggered public protests.

Nazarov went into hiding in March 1998 after his sympathizers warned him that he would soon be rearrested.

He was accused of terrorism and religious extremism, including links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Uzbek authorities labeled the IMU, which is a radical militant group, a terrorist organization after it raided some southern regions of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1998 and 1999. The IMU was also included on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations starting in 2000.

Alleged Extremist Ties

Many independent observers, however, disputed the alleged links between Nazarov and any terrorist group. John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), told RFE/RL that Nazarov fell victim to the Uzbek government's crackdown on mullahs who wanted to preach Islam independently from the state. MacLeod knew Nazarov personally from 1996-97.

"He was really a part of an earlier phase of events in Uzbekistan when the state religion was entirely in confrontation with independent imams and mullahs such as Obidkhon and a number of others," MacLeod said.

For a long time, there was no information about Nazarov's whereabouts. Rumors occasionally spread that he was abducted by the Uzbek security service while hiding in neighboring Kazakhstan.

Authorities arrested dozens of people accused of being followers of Nazarov. Uzbek authorities jailed his two assistants, three brothers, and his driver for alleged extremism. His wife was also jailed, but released after international pressure was applied. His eldest son, Khusnutdin, disappeared in Tashkent in May 2004.

Some rumors said Khusnutdin Nazarov fled to Kazakhstan, where he was arrested by Kazakh police and handed over to the Uzbek security service.

Astana Helpful

Rao said Nazarov approached the UNHCR last November after some Uzbek refugees were reportedly detained by Kazakh police and deported back to Uzbekistan. Speaking to RFE/RL from Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, Rao praised Kazakh authorities for cooperating with the UN agency.

"The credit has to be given to the Kazakh authorities," he said. "Once we recognized [Nazarov] as a refugee, we informed them that he is under the protection of [the] UNHCR. So Kazakh authorities have honored their...national obligation and let him stay in the country until the UNHCR organized the third-country settlement. And today, when he wanted to depart, the authorities let him leave the country."

The UN's praise of Kazakh authorities comes ahead of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's official visit to Uzbekistan on 19 March. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on March 16.)

ANNIVERSARY OF AKSY TRAGEDY MARKED IN KYRGYZSTAN. As many in Kyrgyzstan prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the "People's Revolution," another anniversary is being marked a little earlier. On 17 March, four years ago in the southern town of Aksy, a demonstration in support of a jailed politician turned violent and police killed at least five protesters. The incident sparked widespread protests across Kyrgyzstan and eventually led to the downfall of Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev's government. It was a turning point for Kyrgyzstan.

The mere mention of "Aksy" provokes a range of emotions in Kyrgyzstan. Most agree it was a tragedy, perhaps the worst Kyrgyzstan has known since it became independent in late 1991. Others may add that Aksy was a dress rehearsal for last year's revolution that ousted President Askar Akaev. But for some, the matter is still not settled and for the country's new president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, it represents one of the darker chapters in his life.

The Events

Protests started in Aksy in January 2002, shortly after the local representative in parliament, Azimbek Beknazarov, was detained on charges of abuse of office. On March 17, several thousand people gathered in the Aksy district to protest the detention. Demonstrators threw stones at police who arrived. The police fired on the crowd, killing four people. Another person was killed the next day and yet another man died of injuries he received during the clashes.

At the time, the head of the local criminal investigation department, Alikhan Rakishev, said police were armed but did not start the violence.

"There were four [police] who shot in the air," Rakishev said. "No one was fired at; maybe some ricochets hit people. Everything was done [by the police] within the boundaries of the law, in self-defense. They shot in the air. If [the police] had not had guns they would have been killed. The first shots came from the crowd."

Authorities upheld this version for days even as protests spread. A video emerged at the start of April that clearly showed the police had fired at the protesters. Demonstrators blocked the key Bishkek-Osh highway connecting the northern and southern parts of the country and officials in Bishkek warned that the country was on the brink of civil war.

On May 22, Prime Minister Bakiev resigned. Several local officials were later jailed for their part in Aksy, but a higher court later freed them on appeal.

No Justice?

Many in Kyrgyzstan still feel those responsible for ordering the shooting were never punished. Akaev, the man who was president at the time of the Aksy events, was chased from power last March in the Tulip Revolution. The man now leading the country is former Prime Minister Bakiev.

On March 15, parliament member and leader of the opposition party Asaba Beknazarov spoke about a renewed investigation into Aksy. "Today, the people in power, in law-enforcement bodies and the White House, are the same who were working under [former President] Akaev when Aksy happened," he said. "There is a proverb that says 'One raven won't peck out the eyes of another raven.'"

Already Investigated

But the chairman of the commission for human rights in the presidential apparatus, Tursunbek Akun, said Beknazarov had his chance to look into the Aksy events last year when he served as acting prosecutor-general after Bakiev came to power.

"I can't say that [President] Bakiev isn't at fault to a certain degree," Akun said. "He had some relationship to the Aksy events. But when he became president he told Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov to put aside all other activities and focus on investigating the Aksy investigation. Now Bakiev says that unfortunately the investigation is not completed because Beknazarov was looking at other matters and didn't finish the Aksy case, despite the fact the president told him to take care of that first."

Akun's support for Bakiev may not impress everyone in Kyrgyzstan. Since becoming president, Bakiev has been largely unable to fulfill key campaign promises of alleviating poverty and fighting corruption. There is a feeling among some in Kyrgyzstan that the new leadership is no better than the one ousted last March.

The numerous questions that remain about Aksy -- why it happened and who was responsible -- are just another issue on the list of problems Bakiev and his government face. (By Bruce Pannier, with Naryn Idinov and Ainura Asankojoeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Originally published on March 17.)

UZBEKISTAN UNDER SIEGE IN 'INFORMATION WAR'. Verbal attacks and tighter restrictions on foreign media, criticism of the World Bank, the expulsion of the UN's refugee agency: the words and actions of the Uzbek government over the past week all suggest a siege mentality is taking hold in Tashkent, and that it is now affecting the country's relationships with some of the world's leading supranational organizations, as well as with the West.

If one phrase could convey how Uzbekistan's leadership now views its relations with the West, it would be "information war." Uzbek President Islam Karimov made that very clear at a news conference on March 20. "Today the nation is under an information attack by many Western countries," he said, an "information unscrupulous that it's impossible to find another word to describe it."

One country in particular is propagating the war but, he said, "I won't name it." Earlier statements by Uzbek officials have put a name on that country, arguing that the unrest in May 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon, in which -- officially -- 187 people died, was the result of a U.S.-funded attempt by foreigners to foment a coup using radical Islamists.

It may have been the United States that Karimov had in mind when he said on March 20 that "the Andijon events and everything that followed revealed who is who and how they plan to carry out their far-reaching geopolitical and geostrategic plans on Uzbek territory."

Faced with a perceived threat to the country's stability and security, Karimov defended the system he has established. "We want to live as all of Europe lives. We want to live like all democratic countries," he said.

But, in remarks apparently addressed to the West, he warned: "Your model of democracy is absolutely inappropriate for us. Your model and your values are absolutely unacceptable because we live in Uzbekistan, where 85 percent of the population is Muslim. These are people who profess Islam. And our values are naturally different from the values that we call Western values."

Karimov did not illuminate the difference between Western values and the values he feels are more appropriate to Uzbekistan.

Weapons In Information War

However, recent actions by Karimov's government do provide some insight into what organizations Uzbekistan believes are engaged in the "information war."

One group are foreign information providers. The government has therefore recently changed the rules of engagement for foreign media. One new rule is that unaccredited Uzbeks cannot engage in "professional activities" for a foreign media outlet. The Foreign Ministry was quick to show that even those with accreditation can easily find it removed: on March 15, it stripped Deutsche Welle correspondent Obid Shabanov of his accreditation for what it termed an untrue story, produced on February 1, about a fatal bus accident.

Tashkent's campaign to convey a true version of events has resulted in a steady drumbeat of stories in officially approved Uzbek media pillorying foreign reporting. For example, -- a young news website produced by, as it says, by a "club of journalists" -- blasted the BBC on March 18. "While employees of the BBC and others like them pretend to be objective and neutral are in fact genuine aggressors in an ideological war," it said. (RFE/RL was forced to close down its office in Uzbekistan in late 2005.)

Another foreign organization to come under fire is the World Bank. In his March 20 press conference, Karimov lambasted the bank for a report that estimated inflation in Uzbekistan at 31 percent and unemployment at 20 percent. Asserting that an International Monetary Fund commission in December 2005 estimated inflation at seven percent, Karimov concluded that the World Bank was not merely wrong, but that it "crossed out these figures in an attempt to discredit Uzbekistan." Days earlier, the World Bank had suspended lending to Uzbekistan.

Even as Karimov was unmasking the World Bank's malign intentions, his government was turning attention to the activities of the United Nations. On the same day, March 20, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry had shown it the door. Tashkent says the UNHCR has "fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan"; the UNHCR, while promising to comply, noted that 2,000 Afghan refugees in Uzbekistan depend on its assistance. The UNHCR had angered the Uzbek government by, in 2005, helping to airlift 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch believes the UNHCR's expulsion may be connected with that.

The U.S. State Department has criticized Uzbekistan's decision to force the UNHCR out of the country. But with the Uzbek government digging ever deeper trenches in its information war, a siege mentality seems to be winning the day. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on March 22.)