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Central Asia Report: August 2, 2006

August 2, 2006, Volume 6, Number 22

WEEK AT A GLANCE (July 17-23). Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, announced that he has begun to form a social-democratic party, although he stressed that he had no plans to try to unite all opposition forces. The Real Ak Zhol opposition party expressed "serious concern" at the attempt by police on July 14 to evict dwellers from an unauthorized settlement outside Almaty, describing the violent incident as a result of government indifference to the problem of "spontaneous urbanization." President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Latvia, where he indicated that Kazakhstan is interested in investing in Latvian ports and shipping facilities to further Kazakh oil exports to Europe. And state oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz purchased a 50 percent stake in the KazGerMunai joint venture for $1 billion. Kyrgyz police arrested nine alleged planners of the May 2005 unrest in Andijon, Uzbekistan, including the daughter of Akram Yuldoshev, whom Uzbek authorities accuse of leading the so-called Akramiya extremist group that they say was behind the violence. The arrests followed a string of violent incidents in southern Kyrgyzstan, prompting Busurmankul Tabaldiev, head of the National Security Service, to vow a stepped-up fight against extremism and Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov to ask for armored vehicles and better automatic weapons to fight terrorists and extremists. Elsewhere, civil-society activists warned of a government campaign to portray NGOs as a "fifth column." And a joint venture between a state-owned firm and Austria's Global Gold received a license to develop the Jerooy gold field. Britain's Oxus Gold, which has been stripped of its license to mine the field, appealed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair to help the company in its fight to regain its license. Tajik prosecutors asked for the death penalty in the trial of former Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev, who stands accused of attempting to mount a coup. Uzbekistan cut off gas shipments to Tajikistan over arrears of $7.64 million. Tajikistan, which claims it owes only $3 million, blocked shipments of Uzbek gas through Tajikistan to eastern Uzbekistan. And Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov announced that police have arrested 10 suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Sharifov blamed IMU members for a string of violent attacks in Tajikistan, including two bomb blasts in Dushanbe in 2005, an attack on an Interior Ministry facility in Qayroqqum in January 2006, and the murder of a Defense Ministry official A number of rights groups -- including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders -- issued a joint appeal for the Turkmen government to ensure the unconditional release of Amankurban Amanklychev, Ogulsapar Muradova, and Sapardurdy Khajiev. The three are associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, and Muradova is an RFE/RL correspondent. They were arrested in June amid allegations of espionage. The letter noted "credible allegations that the detainees have been ill-treated in custody" and indications that they have been detained "in retribution for their peaceful and legal human rights work." Uzbek security forces arrested a Tajik citizen on suspicion of espionage. Furqat Tuighunov reportedly admitted to undergoing training with Tajikistan's National Security Ministry to carry out sabotage operations in Uzbekistan and "liquidate" specific individuals there. The two countries have recently traded spying allegations, with Tajikistan convicting three Uzbek citizens of espionage on behalf of Uzbekistan and Uzbekistan arresting a Tajik citizen on similar grounds. Elsewhere, 12 refugees who fled Uzbekistan after violence in Andijon in 2005 and received asylum in the United States returned to Uzbekistan.

CENTRAL ASIA: MIDEAST CONFLICT WATCHED WITH MIXED EMOTIONS Sixteen days after the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Lebanon-based Hizballah militants, Israeli air strikes have killed more than 500 Lebanese and displaced half a million people, according to the Lebanese government. The United Nations says one-third of the dead are children. In Israel, rocket attacks fired from militant positions in Lebanon have left 29 dead.

Israeli has defended its massive military response by saying Hizballah is a terrorist organization that for too long has menaced its northern border and its citizens. Hizballah originally said it kidnapped the two soldiers to secure the release of its own and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails. Now it says the clash is no less than a battle for Islam.

RFE/RL asked people in predominantly Muslim Central Asia how they see the conflict.

Tajikistan: On the streets of Dushanbe, a Tajik man said Israel's motive for attacking Lebanon is not what it has said publicly.

"They [Israel] use the excuse that the reason was releasing a soldier. Now we hear in [the] media, and read on many websites, that this [was] just an excuse, it is more for creating havoc in the region," he protested.

Another Tajik man told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that violence solves nothing, and offered a suggestion to end the conflict.

"It is not good that Israel is bombarding Lebanon," he said. "There is no justice in this. People are being killed. There must be peace. Russia and the U.S. should be involved to stop this war."

Kazakhstan: A Kazakh worker in Almaty named Qanat said he has not followed the conflict and isn't interested in Middle East events. The Arabs and Israelis, he said, have "permanent antagonism" for each other.

"To tell you frankly, I don't care. They fought [before] and they will be fighting," the man said. "Here in Almaty we have a mess [ourselves]. That's why I do not care about Middle East at all. They have been fighting with each other all their lives and they will be fighting as long as the Jews are living [there]."

Aleksandr Kimasov, a retired ethnic Russian from Almaty, said all fighting is wrong.

"I would like to say not just as a citizen of Kazakhstan, but as a citizen of the Earth, that any war is bad, very bad. Those who ignite it always are responsible in front of the almighty [God]. Any conflict, any so-called disorder or matter can be solved by diplomatic, economic, and any other means," Kimasov said.

Aleksandr Suvorov, an Orthodox Christian preacher at Almaty's Voznesensky Cathedral, is concerned for the Lebanese people, who he said are suffering because of Hizballah's actions.

"The Hizballah movement does not necessarily reflect the stand, or positions, of all the Lebanese people. The result is that people of Lebanon suffer," Suvorov said. "And surely, the military aggression by Israel has to be condemned, as well. In the end, it isn't those who initiated all the [events], but ordinary people, who suffer."

Afghanistan: Kabiri, who didn't give a last name, said the conflict between Hizballah and Israel was not a battle of Muslims and Jews, but a political clash.

But Sharifi, also no last name, offered that it could be both. "My view on the war between Hizballah and Israel [is] both factors are involved," he said. "Political factors, and it could also be a war between Islam and [non-Muslims]."

Uzbekistan: In Uzbekistan, a woman in Tashkent told RFE/RL that the conflict in the Middle East seems destined to continue indefinitely.

"The Middle East is, by God's will, a never-ending conflict," she said. "[The Palestinians and Israelis] have always wanted each other's land. Conflict and political games will continue there until justice prevails."

An Uzbek man was less resigned to the conflict. Israel, he said, bears responsibility for the current violence.

"It looks like [Israel] is playing with Lebanon like a [boy] plays with a ball. We've talked about it and everyone [here] condemned Israel. If they destroy everything because of one [hostage], is that justice" They invaded and destroyed [Lebanon]. I saw it on TV. It's wrong. It's like saying, 'I'll kill 100 of your people if you kill one of mine.' Muslims must be like [garbage] for [Israel]."

Another man pointed out that the world community has put all the blame on Hizballah.

"The G8 [Group of Eight leading industrialized countries] did not condemn Israel. [They] condemned Lebanese militants," he said. "Even if those are militants, how can one destroy everything and kill ordinary people? Because of some 10 or 15 militants, people suffer and cities have been destroyed."

Azerbaijan: Several Azeris interviewed by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service expressed similar feelings on what the role of Azerbaijan, Muslims, and Arabs should be.

"Azerbaijan must condemn the war," one said. "This is no longer the war against terrorism, this is a very big and well-planned action.

Another said he is frustrated with his fellow Muslims. "Where is the Muslim world?" he asked. "I am very angry. The peaceful Muslim population is being killed. They are like toys for Israel."

Terrorism goes against Islamic values, offered another, so "we should give our support to Muslims, but at the same time we should seriously fight terrorism."

Finally, one man saw a parallel between what it happening in the Middle East and his own country.

"Azerbaijan should try to make peace between them [Israel and Lebanon]," he said, "because Azerbaijan itself suffers from the conflict."

(By Heather Maher. RFE/RL's Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Tajik, and Uzbek services contributed to this report. Originally published on July 20.)

UZBEKISTAN: ANDIJON REFUGEES IN U.S. MAKE SURPRISE RETURN HOME. Twelve Uzbeks with political asylum in the United States returned to Uzbekistan last week. Fourteen months ago they fled their hometown of Andijon when Uzbek government troops opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing hundreds. The return has surprised many as it comes amid a battle by the United Nations and international human rights groups over the fate of several Uzbek refugees still detained in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The 12 Uzbeks were among hundreds of people who fled in fear and panic from Andijon on May 13, 2005, after Uzbek government troops opened fire on protesters in the town's central square.

They first sought refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and, with the assistance of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), 439 of them were flown to Romania and subsequently given political asylum in the United States and various European countries.

Uzbek authorities wanted them returned, saying that some of them had committed terrorist acts in Uzbekistan. Human rights groups said the refugees were likely to face prosecution and possibly torture if they returned home.

Andre Mahecic of the UNHCR says the 12 Uzbeks did not inform the UN about their decision to return home.

"We have seen media reports -- in fact, there is no mechanism that would force these people to contact UNHCR or anybody," he said. "It is an inalienable right of people to return. However if they were in touch with us, we would certainly provide them advice and counsel them as much as possible on the situation and possible pitfalls along the way."

The Uzbek Embassy in Washington assisted the Uzbeks in returning home. Russia's Regnum news agency quoted an unnamed source at the Uzbek Foreign Ministry as saying on July 17 that Uzbek authorities considered the refugees' request to return home and concluded that those people were not involved in "terrorist attacks in Andijon." The statement said: "It was proved that they were deceived and taken outside the country."

One of the refugees resettled in the United States told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the Uzbek national security service gave the 12 Uzbeks a guarantee that they would be safe.

Allison Gill, a former head of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Tashkent office, is skeptical about that guarantee. She recalls the cases of several Uzbeks accused of masterminding the 1999 bombings in Tashkent. They returned home after Uzbek authorities "guaranteed" their safety but were subsequently tried and sentenced to prison terms.

"I am a little skeptical about promises by the Uzbek government to pardon people who fled Uzbekistan after the Andijon events," Gill said. "I fear this may be a trap.... I understand that leaving a home country is a horrible experience. Living in a foreign country is very hard. Of course they want to go home. I can understand that. But I have difficulties to comprehend how one can trust this government."

However, some of the other refugees seem intent on following these 12 refugees.

On June 27, a group of Uzbek refugees in Germany wrote an open letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov saying they want to return home. A man who introduced himself as Nasrullo is one of them.

"God willing, I have the same intention," he said. "If I will be told: 'Come without fear, nothing [bad] will happen to you,' I will believe it and return. I will get my old job, God willing. I want to be in my own country, among my own people. I believe I should be there [living with] my people."

The return to Uzbekistan by the refugees has surprised many of their compatriots. This man from Andijon had this to say: "I can't understand them. There was a massacre in Andijon. The suffering and hardship of the Uzbek people, the prosecution of opposition members and human rights activists [continues]. People had to flee the country after the Andijon massacre. And now they ask for a pardon and return home? It's incomprehensible."

Gill and Mahecic say the refugees' return to Uzbekistan does not affect the international community's assessment of the Andijon tragedy. Western countries severely condemned the Uzbek government's method of quelling the protest in Andijon.

Uzbek authorities have said 187 people, mostly troops and "foreign-paid terrorists," died in the uprising. Eyewitness accounts and independent estimates say the death toll may be as high as 800, and that it included many women and children.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR is assisting dozens of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan who fled religious and political persecution in Uzbekistan.

Four Andijon refugees remain in detention in Kyrgyzstan despite being granted UN refugee status. Uzbek authorities continue to demand their extradition.

Five others -- four from Andijon and one from the nearby city of Kokand (Qoqon) -- were detained today in southern Kyrgyzstan, reported quoting Osh city police official Zamir Sidykov.

Several others who fled to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan face pressure from the Uzbek side to return home. Some have reportedly been abducted by the Uzbek security service and forcefully brought home.

Isroil Kholdarov, a human rights and political activist from Andijon who has been seeking asylum in Kyrgyzstan, has been missing since last week.

In Kazakhstan, Gabdurafih Temirboev, an Uzbek with UN refugee status, has been in detention since June 24.

On July 17, the HRW urged the European Union to stress the need for Uzbek refugees to be protected in neighboring countries. The organization said Uzbek refugees face "a very real risk of persecution and torture in Uzbekistan."

(By Gulnoza Saidazimova. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report. Originally published on July 19, 2006.)

CENTRAL ASIA: TASHKENT AND BISHKEK WORKING TO COMBAT 'TERRORISM.' The heads of the Kyrgyz and Uzbek security services met on July 25 to discuss ways to strengthen bilateral cooperation. The meeting comes after the Kyrgyz and Uzbek presidents agreed last week to join forces in fighting "international terrorism" and "religious extremism." These developments seem to indicate further rapprochement between the two Central Asian neighbors, whose relations soured last year following Bishkek's decision not to send Andijon refugees back to Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev said he has agreed with Uzbek President Islam Karimov to join forces in combating what he called "international terrorism" and "religious extremism."

"I had the full backing of Uzbek President Islam Abduganievich [Karimov] on the fight against destabilizing factors in Central Asia," Bakiev said after meeting Karimov on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Moscow on July 22.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyz state media has given extensive coverage of the meeting of "the leaders of the two fraternal countries."

The Bakiev-Karimov meeting was quickly followed by the first-ever meeting of the heads of the states' security services on July 25.

Kabar news agency reported that Kyrgyzstan's Busurmankul Tabaldiev and his Uzbek counterpart Rustam Inoyatov agreed to exchange information and conduct joint operations against "religious extremists and terrorists" in order to prevent terrorist attacks in their countries.

Because Central Asia has a long record of governments using the fight against extremism or terrorism as a pretext for cracking down on dissent, the immediate question that emerges from recent declarations is "who is defined as a terrorist?"

Vitaly Ponomaryov, the director of the Moscow-based Memorial's program for monitoring human rights in Central Asia, tells RFE/RL that the foremost "common enemy" of Tashkent and Bishkek is Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).

"After the May [12] incidents on the border [when gunmen entered Kyrgyz territory from Tajikistan], the number of cases of detention of Hizb ut-Tahrir members has been on the rise in southern and northern Kyrgyzstan," Ponomaryov said. "In many cases, laws have been violated [and] charges were falsified. We have reason to [believe] that the courts will give lengthier prison terms and tougher punishments [to HT members]. This strengthening of repression is unjustified because Hizb ut-Tahrir is a nonviolent organization."

HT is banned in most of Central Asia. It aims to create an Islamic state, or caliphate, but officially denounces violence.

In Uzbekistan, hundreds of HT members have been imprisoned in recent years. In Kyrgyzstan, despite the official ban, the group enjoyed relative freedom in preaching its ideology and even holding charitable events -- until Bishkek's recent crackdown.

Kyrgyz officials said HT declared "jihad" against the country's law-enforcement agencies. On July 19, reported an unnamed official source as saying that in response, law-enforcement agencies declared "gazavat" (war) against HT.

Also on July 19, Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov said police will get additional defense technology and weapons to fight the HT.

Kyrgyz officials also say that HT membership has tripled in the last five years.

And they insist that there are ties between HT and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU was formed in the mid-1990s with the same aim of creating a caliphate in Central Asia. But, unlike HT, it has used violence in trying to reach its goals.

Kyrgyzstan's security forces killed five suspected members of the IMU in the southern city of Jalalabad on July 14.

They said the men had been involved in the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent that targeted Uzbek President Karimov, as well as a 2003 attack on a market in Bishkek.

On July 25, Kyrgyz police detained yet another Uzbek citizen, Bekmurat Karimov, in Osh, on charges of belonging to the IMU.

Aalybek Akunov is a professor of political studies at Kyrgyz National University. Endorsing the official views, he tells RFE/RL that Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities face a serious threat of "international terrorism."

"The latest incidents in Kyrgyzstan's south, in the Jalalabad and Osh regions, [and] the detention of representatives of the IMU [and] Hizb ut-Tahrir -- all these things are a sign that there is a common enemy," he said. "For those terrorists, the [existing] Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is just virtual. Their goal is to create another state. That's why when I say a 'common enemy,' I mean international terrorism and religious extremism."

Just like officials in Tashkent, Kyrgyz authorities seem to have added the Akramiya religious group to their list of "enemies."

Uzbek authorities say Akramiya and its alleged leader, Akram Yuldoshev, who has been in prison since 1999, masterminded the May 2005 violence in Andijon.

Yuldoshev's daughter, Gulmira Maqsudova, was arrested last week along with five Uzbeks and three Kyrgyz in Osh. Kyrgyz police said they had found firearms and 400 grams of explosives during a search of one of the suspects' houses on July 18. Police accused six Uzbeks of being involved in the Andijon events.

This development is noticeable as it marks a definite change in between the two neighboring states.

Kyrgyzstan gave refuge to hundreds of Uzbek refugees following the Uzbek government troops' bloody crackdown of the Andijon protest.

Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations soured after officials in Bishkek allowed the United Nations to resettle Uzbeks in the West despite strong pressure from official Tashkent for them to be returned.

Recent official talk about strengthening Uzbek-Kyrgyz cooperation causes concern among human rights activists like Ponomaryov.

"The danger with this kind of cooperation is that a huge amount of information that Uzbekistan presents as official is actually absolutely false [and] gained under torture," he said. "This kind of testimony -- obtained under duress and presented as official -- then becomes grounds for detention and persecution of [innocent] people on the territory of neighboring countries."

Ponomaryov says he believes Dilshodbek Hojiev -- whose trial opened on July 25 in Tashkent -- was also subject to torture and fell victim to Uzbek-Kyrgyz cooperation.

Uzbek authorities accuse the 33-year old of leading the IMU in the late 1990s along with Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldosh. They say Hojiev also collaborated with the top leadership of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, including Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Hojiev fled to Kyrgyzstan from Andijon in May 2005. Kyrgyz authorities sent him back to Uzbekistan along with three of his countrymen, who were later sentenced to between 13 and 17 years in jail. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on July 27, 2006.)