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Central Asia Report: August 14, 2006

August 14, 2006, Volume 6, Number 24

WEEK AT A GLANCE (July 31-August 6). Rustam Ibragimov, a former law enforcement officer on trial for the murder of Kazakh opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev, stunned the court with testimony that Sarsenbaev was supposed to meet shortly before his murder with three prominent individuals allegedly planning a coup. Ibragimov fingered Senate speaker Nurtai Abykaev and former National Security Committee head Nartai Dutbaev as the plotters. Russia suspended launches of the Dnepr rocket, a converted RS-20 ballistic missile, pending the investigation of a failed launch in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's Emergency Situations Ministry announced that levels of heptyl, a toxic compound found in rocket fuel, were 1,000 times higher than normal at the crash site. Finally, French journalist Gregoire De Bourgues was found dead in his Almaty apartment in an apparent robbery attempt. De Bourgues had been covering events in Kazakhstan for the U.S.-based journal "Foreign Affairs."

Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry confirmed that the United States has declared two members of the Kyrgyz diplomatic mission to the United States persona non grata. The move came in an apparent response to the recent expulsion of two U.S. diplomats from Kyrgyzstan. Security forces detained nine suspected members of the banned Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir in Jalal-Abad province. The World Bank announced that it will provide a $15 million grant to support rural reform efforts. And Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan failed to agree on a price for exports of Kyrgyz electricity to the Tajik Aluminum Plant, with the Tajik side insisting on a price of $.01 per kilowatt-hour, while the Kyrgyz side pushed for a higher price. Talks are set to resume in mid-August.

The Tajik government denied the BBC a license to conduct FM broadcasts in Dushanbe and Khujand, referring to the absence of an agreement between the Tajik and British governments on cooperation in television and radio broadcasting. The trial of Ghaffor Mirzoev, former head of the Drug Control Agency, ended, with judges recessing to discuss a verdict on charges that include abuse of office, tax evasion, and planning a coup. Mirzoev has pled not guilty in the closed trial. A court in Sughd province sentenced Yori Yoqubov, a stateless individual and resident of Uzbekistan, to a 15-year prison term for spying on behalf of Uzbekistan. The Drug Control Agency broke up four drug-smuggling gangs, confiscating 450 kilograms of narcotics. And a policeman was killed in Isfara when a suspected member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan set off a grenade while police were trying to arrest him, killing himself and a police officer and wounding two other police officers.

U.S.-based Newmont Mining, which owns a 50 percent stake in a gold-mining joint venture in Uzbekistan, announced that Uzbek authorities have seized assets, blocked gold shipments, and frozen an account in the course of their $48 million tax dispute with the joint venture. Newmont said that it will continue to fight the ruling and reserves its right to pursue international arbitration, although it is also considering selling its stake in Zarafshan-Newmont, which it values at $94 million. And songwriter Dadakhon Hasan went on trial on charges of defaming Uzbek President Islam Karimov, undermining the constitution, and threatening public security and order. Hasan was reportedly arrested after he wrote songs about the bloodshed in Andijon in May 2005.

KAZAKHSTAN: BATTLE OF THE CLANS CONTINUES. The six-week-old trial of defendants charged with the murder of Kazakh opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev initially followed in the footsteps of innumerable courtroom proceedings all over the world. The two chief defendants recanted their confessions and pleaded not guilty. And daily eyewitness and expert testimony soon settled into a lulling rhythm punctuated by occasional hints of something more interesting, but nothing concrete. That all changed on August 2, when a key defendant began to testify of a conspiracy and coup attempt involving top-level Kazakh officials.

Defendant Rustam Ibragimov is a former law-enforcement officer charged with killing Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard at the behest of Erzhan Utembaev, the former head of the Senate administration. Ibragimov pleaded not guilty when he took the stand, then went on to testify of senior involvement in a conspiracy and coup attempt.

Who's 'Protecting' Whom?

The bodies of Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard were discovered outside Almaty on February 13.

Ibragimov testified that on February 15 he spoke with Utembaev, who prosecutors allege paid him to commit the murder to settle a personal grudge against Sarsenbaev. As Ibragimov told the story, Utembaev told him that the opposition leader was to have met on February 11, just days before the killing, with the speaker of the Senate and Utembaev's former boss, Nurtai Abykaev; the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee, who stepped down in the wake of the Sarsenbaev killing, Nartai Dutbaev; and the former leader of the presidential administration's religious affairs section, Aleksei Kikshaev.

A transcript by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service shows that Ibragimov suggested that all three men -- Abykaev, Dutbaev, and Kikshaev -- were "protecting" Utembaev. What's more, Ibragimov charged that the three sought to "remove the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, [Nursultan] Nazarbaev, in two or three years and putting Abykaev in his place."

In a bizarre footnote, Ibragimov also insinuated that one of the men, Kikshaev, has ties to "the CIA and the Vatican."

'Clan Standoff'

The individuals named by Ibragimov did not respond publicly to the allegations against them. But in an interview with the independent Russian-language daily "Liter" on August 4, an adviser to speaker Abykaev made a number of intriguing comments in his defense. Dastan Kadyrzhanov described Abykaev, a longtime ally of President Nazarbaev, as a member of the "old presidential guard." He said Abykaev has supported what he called "the president's policy of checks and balances in society."

Thanks to that approach, Kadyrzhanov said, "the concept of a 'clan standoff' never rose to the top of the political agenda." He stressed Abykaev's loyalty to Nazarbaev, and charged that current " lower his actions to the level of intra-clan warfare are pointless."

Kadyrzhanov's focus on clans is not accidental. Clans, or influence groups, have occupied a central place in the fallout from the mysterious murder of Sarsenbaev. Speculation about the murder and attempts to benefit from it followed the lines of the influence groups that play a key role in Kazakh politics. In the weeks after the murder, Dutbaev's departure from the National Security Committee and the weakening of Abykaev -- whose subordinate was charged with ordering the murder -- came as a blow to the influence group headed by President Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev. At the same time, the influence group headed by presidential daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva and her husband, Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, appeared to be gaining ground.

Darigha Pushed Aside

The picture has changed in the intervening months. Previously, Nazarbaeva had wielded influence through the pro-presidential party that she headed and the state-held Khabar television network, which she reportedly controlled.

But more recently, Darigha's influence has receded on both fronts. In early May, recently appointed Information and Culture Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev told parliament that the state needs to reassert its control over Khabar. The move came amid reports of tension between Darigha and her father. Then, in early July, Darigha's Asar party merged with another pro-presidential group, the Otan party. The move effectively dissolved her party in the larger entity and deprived Darigha of an independent political springboard.

Meanwhile, the rival group of Timur Kulibaev -- who is married to Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara -- has been consolidating its influence. Only days before Darigha Nazarbaeva's political party vanished into her father's, Kulibaev was named chairman of the board at national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz. That is no mean post in light of Kazakhstan's oil wealth.

Kulibaev had previously served as KazMunaiGaz's vice president. But the new appointment pointed to consolidated clout. The chairman of the nongovernmental Network of Independent Observers, Dos Koshim, told RFE/RL that Kulibaev's new post suggested that his influence was growing in comparison to that of Darigha Nazarbaeva and her husband. Koshim said that the move "looks like [President] Nazarbaev's attempt to base his powers not on Darigha and Rakhat, but on his second son-in-law."

Broader Struggle

The connection between these clan conflicts and the testimony Ibragimov presented on August 2 is obscure. We have no way of judging the veracity of Ibragimov's testimony or his motives in presenting it at this stage in the trial.

But the reaction of Abykaev's adviser, who immediately related Ibragimov's allegations to "intra-clan warfare," is telling. For while Ibragimov's charges of a conspiracy and coup d'etat do little to clarify the circumstances of a killing that shook the Kazakh political establishment, they come as further confirmation that the fallout reflects a broader struggle between the influence groups that remain the real power brokers in Kazakhstan's political system. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on August 9.)

CENTRAL ASIAN SECURITY SERVICES TAKE ON RELIGIOUS DISSENT. Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin, the prominent ethnic Uzbek religious leader who was killed during a security raid in southern Kyrgyzstan on August 6, is not the first imam to have been targeted by law-enforcement agencies in the region. Several other Uzbek imams have been persecuted before. But he is the first to have been targeted by both Kyrgyz and Uzbek security services. Independent observers say the violent death of an Islamic leader known for his tolerance toward radical worshipers highlights increasing Kyrgyz-Uzbek cooperation to fight religious dissent.

Authorities in Bishkek said Kamoluddin, who was also known as Muhammadrafiq Kalamov, had ties to terrorists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). He was shot dead along with the two other alleged IMU members in a joint raid by Uzbek and Kyrgyz security forces.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, dissident Uzbek imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov called the cleric's killing unprecedented.

"This is a horrifying event. There has been no such case in recent history," Nazarov said. "There have been abductions of Muslims -- Abduvali Qori [Mirzaev] was abducted by the Uzbek secret service. Several other religious figures have also been abducted. [Uzbek authorities] have done lots of dirty deeds. But openly shooting someone hasn't happened in recent history."

Serious Allegations

Nazarov himself is charged with terrorism. Uzbek authorities accuse him of involvement in deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. Nazarov fled Uzbekistan and found refuge in Europe in March after spending eight years in hiding in Kazakhstan.

Nazarov and Kamoluddin are by no means the only imams that officials in the region have labeled "terrorists."

Another imam, Ruhitdin Fahrutdinov, is facing trial in Tashkent, charged with terrorism and extremist and anticonstitutional activities. Fahrutdinov -- on the run since 1998 -- was detained in southern Kazakhstan in November and subsequently extradited to Uzbekistan.

Abduvali Qori Mirzaev, a prominent imam and one of Kamoluddin's close relatives, has been missing since 1995. He disappeared after clearing passport control at Tashkent's international airport. Mirzaev's relatives have alleged he was detained by Uzbek security service, secretly tried and possibly executed.

Nazarov mentions several other imams he says have been persecuted for their religious activities in Uzbekistan.

Twice As Tough

But none of those cases featured the kind of cooperation between the security services of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that Kamoluddin's case showed.

Uzbek opposition leaders have condemned Kyrgyz officials' dealings with the prominent imam.

Abdurahim Polatov, the exiled leader of the opposition Birlik (Unity) party, called it a "shameful act."

"It is difficult to comprehend why the Kyrgyz government is cooperating with Uzbekistan [in counterterrorism] and even trying to win the sympathies of [President Islam] Karimov's regime," Polatov said. "Kyrgyzstan might be doing so because it is a small state. Unfortunately, in 1992-94, former Kyrgyz President [Askar] Akaev had a similar [policy] and assisted the Uzbek government in persecuting Uzbek opposition members and human rights activists on [the Kyrgyz] territory. Yet it is a shameful act by the new democratic Kyrgyz government."

The joint Uzbek-Kyrgyz raid came soon after the chiefs of those countries' security services agreed to conduct joint counterterrorism operations. The meeting followed talks between Kyrgyz and Uzbek presidents on combating what they called "international terrorism" and "religious extremism."

Mutual Benefits?

Michael Hall, the director of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asia Project, speculated on the reasons behind Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his government's renewed collaboration with Tashkent.

"From the very beginning of his rule, Bakiev and the Kyrgyz government in general have been under quite a strong pressure from the Uzbek side," Hall said. "I believe Kyrgyzstan counted on more assistance from Western countries [after its March 2005 revolution]. And I believe they were disappointed with what they've seen. Bakiev and his government feel they have no other option: Uzbekistan is next door. Uzbeks can create lots of problems for Kyrgyz in many spheres -- for instance, in the energy sector."

Hall says President Bakiev has found an area where he can benefit from cooperation with Tashkent: counterterrorism -- by which both sides mean the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, among others.

Hall suggested that Bakiev feels safe with the policy -- keeping Karimov pleased and also limiting Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence. That influence appears to have been growing, not only in Kyrgyzstan's ethnic-Uzbek south, but also in the north of the country.

The Uzbek security service has been active in Kyrgyzstan's south for years, with occasional reports of abductions and forced repatriation with Kyrgyz officials' silent consent.

Hall says that Uzbeks now appear to have "carte blanche" in conducting operations on the Kyrgyz soil.

Official Tashkent was quick to react to Kamoluddin's killing through the official website, highlighting alleged ties to Islamist radicals.

The website published a long article just a few hours after the news broke of imam Kamoluddin's death. The article alleged links to Nazarov and "friendly" ties with IMU leaders. It also alleged that Nazarov and Kamoluddin were "the main organizers, inspirers, and ideologues" of "bandits" who planned terrorist acts in Uzbekistan.

Nazarov dismissed all of the allegations and said he had never met Kamoluddin in person.

Battling Religious Opponents

Kamoluddin was known for allowing Islamic radicals from Hizb ut-Tahrir to pray at his mosque although he was critical of the group's ideology. He also criticized the Central Asian governments' religions policies.

Muhammad Solih, the exiled leader of Uzbek opposition party Erk (Freedom), called Kamoluddin a victim of the Karimov regime's pursuit of religious opponents.

"It is an extension of the 15-year state terror of the Karimov regime across the borders," Solih says. "Karimov has not been adequately punished for his terror conducted inside the country. Unfortunately, the world community has not raised its voice and has not responded adequately to this terror. Karimov -- inspired by this [impunity] -- started extending his terror to foreign lands."

Some in Kyrgyzstan have warned Bakiev against cooperation with Karimov. Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu said cooperation with Uzbek regime is harming Kyrgyzstan's international image and affecting its democratic development.

"I fear Kyrgyzstan is gradually becoming like Uzbekistan," Bakir-uulu said. "First they fought with the political opposition and weakened it. Now they have turned against religious figures. It was the same in Uzbekistan: First they eliminated the political opposition, then [they] started eliminating religious figures."

It is remains to be seen how Tashkent and Bishkek might benefit from eliminating Kamoluddin in the longer term. He was a prominent religious figure with moderate stance.

The International Crisis Group's Hall predicts that Kamoluddin's death could radicalize some of the imam's followers. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on August 10.)

FAMILY, FOLLOWERS REJECT 'TERRORIST' CLAIMS AGAINST SLAIN CLERIC IN KYRGYZSTAN. Relatives and supporters of a Kyrgyz cleric killed by security forces are rejecting official claims that imam Muhammadrafiq Kalamov, widely known as Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin, belonged to an Islamist terror group. Thousands of people turned up in his hometown of Kara-Suu, in southern Kyrgyzstan, on August 7 to pay their final respects. Mourners marched amid a strengthened police presence in the streets on the way to the cemetery, hailing the imam as a "martyr" for the Islamic cause. Tensions are likely to remain high as Kamoluddin's family and followers await the results of an official probe into his death at the hands of counterterrorism troops on August 6.

It was clear that some people were expecting Kamoluddin's funeral late on August 7 to erupt into protest. The imam was popular in this bustling town on the border with Uzbekistan, attracting crowds of up to 10,000 for his Friday sermons.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Kara-Suu reported that a dozen security service officers guarded the morgue in the nearby city of Osh before the family received the bullet-riddled corpse.

Authorities closely watched the proceedings as more than 3,000 mourners gathered at the imam's house, local police said.

'They Were Frightened Of Him'

The crowd carried Kamoluddin's body through the streets of Kara-Suu to the city cemetery chanting, "God is Great!" and "Martyr!"

The mourners say Kamoluddin died in the service of Islam.

Kamoluddin's son, Rashod, has accused Kyrgyz authorities of a campaign of harassment against his father.

"[First] they tried to imprison him, then the people protested and they (authorities) were frightened. Now they've put a gun into his hand and shot him dead," Rashod said. "He is a martyr. They got rid of my father. They were frightened of him because he had 20,000 or 30,000 followers. I will meet with my father in paradise."

The 53-year-old Kamoluddin was killed in a joint Kyrgyz-Uzbek security raid in Osh on August 6 along with two men whom authorities have described as Tajik citizens.

Authorities say Kamoluddin was a "terrorist" member of the violent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). They have implicated all three of the dead men in a deadly border incident in mid-May, and say they were planning further attacks before they died in a firefight during a "counterterrorism" operation.

Open Door

Kamoluddin was outspoken in his belief that members of another banned group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, should be allowed to worship in his mosque. But family members rule out any ties between terrorists and the slain imam.

Abdulloh Kamalov, the imam's younger brother, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Kamoluddin died "because he spoke the truth in the mosque." His brother "didn't get involved in politics," Kamalov said.

Kamoluddin was publicly critical of Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideology. He said he believed they were "misguided" but should not be excluded from prayers, citing the example set by the Prophet Muhammad.

Hizb ut-Tahrir followers were among the mourners on August 7. "We can say this after his death: [Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin] was not a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir," one of them told an RFE/RL correspondent in Kara-Suu. "Yet he was a genuine Muslim."

Officials Suspicious

Kamoluddin had been questioned by authorities and even briefly detained by Kyrgyzstan's security forces in the past over his suspected links to militants.

National ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu defended the imam's position on Hizb ut-Tahrir in an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on August 7.

"A mosque is Allah's house, where anyone can come and pray. Hizb ut-Tahrir members or others may have come [to Kamoluddin's mosque]. But it is not written on their foreheads that 'This one is a Hizb ut-Tahrir [member],' and 'That one is an extremist.' Only those who want to pray come to mosque. It is up to the security service, not the imam, to figure out who is coming and who is a terrorist."

Awaiting Findings

The funeral took place peacefully, with no violence reported. But several mourners called authorities' actions a crime. Statements from some followers suggest tensions could remain high in Kyrgyzstan's volatile south.

"The people's hatred and anger is very strong right now," said Ahmad Jalilov, who was present for the funeral. "We knew [Kamoluddin] as a person who called for truth. We witnessed how he spoke only the truth about Islam and called on all Muslims only to [do] right and good things. We will wait for official information from the government."

Another mourner demanded a thorough investigation into the killing. "We are not going to carry out any kind of investigation ourselves," he said. "We demand that the government bodies -- financed from the state budget and by taxpayers -- find those criminals [responsible for Kamoluddin's killing]."

One of Kamoluddin's relatives described Kamoluddin's death as a part of a government campaign that is targeting Muslims and vowed revenge. "God willing, we are going to find out who, when, and for what purpose this crime was carried out," the relative said. "Revenge will be a response to this inhuman brutality. What's significant is that Muslims' lives in Kyrgyzstan are also in danger. Imprisonment or detention without trial has been a practice before. Now, direct murder and shootings have begun."

Ombudsman Bakir-uulu also highlighted the importance of illuminating the circumstances of the imam's death. "This person devoted his whole life to serving a religion," Bakir-uulu said. "His authority and reputation were very high -- not only in Kyrgyzstan, but also in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. Therefore I believe investigators should find out whether the shooting was necessary and whether [Kamoluddin] had a weapon." Bakir-uulu said his office will conduct its own investigation.

In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan's security forces are likely to keep a close eye on events in the south to ward off any possible backlash once the findings are made public. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on August 8.)

U.S. OFFICIAL OFFERS COOPERATION, CRITICISM IN UZBEKISTAN. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher continued his Central Asian tour on August 10, traveling from Uzbekistan to neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

If diplomacy is "the art of the possible," Boucher might have had a tough time spotting such opportunities in Uzbekistan.

He issued seemingly cautious comments in Tashkent on August 9 after meeting with President Islam Karimov and Uzbekistan's new foreign minister, Vladimir Norov.

"We talked about areas of common interest, in a practical way, and we also talked about actions that are needed to try to rebuild trust to try to achieve real cooperation in these areas," Boucher said. "These were good discussions, these were thorough discussions, but I can't tell you at this moment what will happen next. It will depend on what both sides actually do to pursue and develop this cooperation. For our part we're willing to try."

'Long Break'

Karimov noted that the senior U.S. official's visit had come "after a long break."

Before May 2005, the Uzbek government courted friendly ties with the United States to distance itself from its former colonial master, Russia. After September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan allowed the United States to use a military airbase on its territory for operations in Afghanistan. President Karimov even praised the United States for ridding Central Asia of its greatest security menace -- the Taliban. Top U.S. officials regularly traveled to Tashkent, and President Karimov visited Washington in March 2002.

Then came Andijon in May 2005. Troops were sent to the eastern Uzbek city after a jail break freed hundreds of prisoners -- some of whom then mixed with peaceful protesters in Andijon and seized government buildings and officials. Troops opened fire on the crowd. International rights groups and some witnesses called it a massacre of hundreds of innocent people. The Uzbek government said the troops put down an attempted coup by Islamic militants and, in the process, 189 soldiers, militants and innocent civilians were killed.

The UN called for an independent investigation, a call the U.S. government echoed. The Uzbek government then told Washington to remove its troops from Uzbek soil before the end of the year. The Uzbek government has since courted Moscow and Beijing, shunning not just the United States, but the West in general.

Boucher did not go to Uzbekistan during a regional tour earlier this year.

Rights An Issue

On August 9, Boucher said that Uzbekistan's human rights situation remains a point of contention between his government and Uzbekistan's:

"The United States has been and continues to be profoundly concerned about the human rights situation here [in Uzbekistan]," Boucher said. "The government here knows that and we report on it in our human rights report. The question is whether we can move forward to improve the situation, whether we can have a dialogue, whether we can try to improve the situation for the people who have been victimized by human rights violations and whether we can find a way to move forward or the government will find a way to move forward here."

Boucher also warned that respect for fundamental rights is a call that Washington will not neglect in future dealings with Tashkent.

"We've been prepared in the past to take necessary steps if the relationship deteriorates, and we may have to do that in the future." he said.

Boucher faced mounting challenges in relations with his Uzbek hosts. They include recent court decisions closing a number of U.S.-based NGOs and businesses in Uzbekistan. This week, a Tashkent city court turned down an appeal by a U.S. NGO over the closure of its office. The day Boucher arrived, Uzbekistan's representative to the United Nations issued a public rejection of UN criticism over the Andijon crackdown.

Boucher is likely to receive a warmer welcome from Kyrgyz officials, and travels on to Tajikistan on August 11. (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on August 10.)