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Central Asia Report: September 1, 2006

September 1, 2006, Volume 6, Number 25

WEEK AT A GLANCE (August 21-27, 2006). Kazakhstan enjoyed a week of military exercises. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) tested its collective rapid-deployment force with war games involving 2,500 personnel, more than 60 armored vehicles, 50 artillery pieces and mortars, 40 aircraft and helicopters, and 14 warships and support vessels. Meanwhile, China and Kazakhstan held a two-stage counterterrorism exercises under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), with the first stage in Kazakhstan and the second in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Elsewhere, police in Aktau detained 17 people after an unsanctioned demonstration, with officials blaming drunken hooligans and other sources saying that protesters had gathered to demand the resignation of Aktau Mayor Viktor Kokh.

Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service warned that cells of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are planning to destabilize southern Kyrgyzstan and gave militants until September 1 to disarm or face "severe punishment." The mission of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. embassy in Kyrgyzstan voiced concern at the disappearance of five Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers, noting reports that they may have been abducted and jailed in Andijon, Uzbekistan. An Uzbek official called the reports untrue. A Kyrgyz gas company official said that Uzbekistan plans to raise the price of the natural gas it sells to Kyrgyzstan from $55 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2007, but the company's director downplayed the possibility of such a large price hike. And Russia banned the import and transit of all animals and animal products from Kyrgyzstan in the wake of reported cases of brucellosis and foot-and-mouth.

Tajikistan hosted a meeting of CIS and SCO prosecutors-general to discuss cooperation. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov said that the meeting "will give a new impetus to the common fight against such threats to the modern world as terrorism, extremism, illegal drug trafficking, and transnational organized crime." Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia's Federation Council, also visited, and President Rakhmonov told a Russian-Tajik interparliamentary forum in Dushanbe that Tajikistan wants Russian companies to come to the country with long-term investment plans.

A Turkmen court sentenced RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova to a six-year prison term and codefendants Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amanklychev to seven-year terms in a brief, closed trial. The three, who had been the target of espionage allegations in June, were found guilty of illegal possession of ammunition. Yu Guong Zhou, Chinese deputy minister of commerce, visited. And Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov issued a resolution allowing Turkmenistan's State Bank to accept a $300 million loan from China's Export-Import Bank on favorable terms for upgrades to production facilities in Turkmenistan. Elsewhere, Turkmenistan's Ministry of Culture sent out 2,000 copies of Niyazov's "Rukhnama" (Book of the Spirit) to the world's 1,222 largest libraries in 161 countries. The official TDH news service gushed that the international distribution of the "Rukhnama" will "allow millions of people to discover for themselves the rich spiritual world of the Turkmen people, its unique traditions, and its glorious centuries-long tradition."

Uzbekistan confirmed that 41 refugees who fled the country after unrest in Andijon in May 2005 returned home from the United States. A group of 12 Andijon refugees had returned from the United States in mid-July, reportedly with safety guarantees from Uzbek officials, although rights groups have expressed doubts about the circumstances of their return. SCO trade ministers met in Tashkent to discuss the implementation of decisions made at the SCO summit in Shanghai in June. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan reportedly reached an agreement that will allow citizens of those two countries to spend up to 60 days in the other country without obtaining a visa. And a civil court in Tashkent ruled to close the Uzbekistan offices of U.S.-based Crosslink Development International, the latest in a long series of foreign-funded NGOs to be shuttered in Uzbekistan.

UZBEKISTAN: CONTESTED VIRTUAL GROUND. Uzbekistan was justly famed for its tightly controlled media environment even before unrest in Andijon in 2005 spurred the government to tie up loose ends. After Andijon, obstreperous journalists were exiled, and media outlets beyond the authorities' control -- like the BBC and RFE/RL -- were expelled. Now, much of the action has gone virtual, with Uzbek journalists abroad opening critical websites even as pro-government online venues multiply.

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A core group of long-standing websites have existed in more or less stable forms for a number of years. These include:

UzA ( The state-run news agency offers news in English, Russian, and Uzbek with a focus on official happenings, particularly the actions of President Islam Karimov. Coverage is invariably favorable to the government. Similar in tone, but slightly broader in its range of coverage, is Jahon (, an information agency run by the Foreign Ministry (also in English, Russian, and Uzbek). ( This pro-government website focuses on business and economic news in English, Russian, and Uzbek, with political events taking a backseat to upbeat coverage of what the site portrays as Uzbekistan's dynamic commercial environment. ( Run by editor Daniil Kislov in Moscow, operates as a news agency with original reports from correspondents in Russia and Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, and as a clearing house for materials originally published elsewhere. Coverage is critical of Russian and Central Asian regimes, with a focus on the economic hardships endured by ordinary citizens (including Central Asian migrant workers in Russia), but not stridently oppositional. Cultural materials leaven the political mix. In English, Russian, and Uzbek.

Erkinyurt ( Run by Mohammad Solih's banned Erk Party, Erkinyurt focuses on opposition politics and maintains a bitterly critical view of President Islam Karimov and the Uzbek government. Offers content in English, Russian, Turkish, and Uzbek and links to other Erk sites ( and

Harakat ( Run by the unregistered Birlik Party (Erk's rival), Harakat features politically oriented daily news updates mainly in Uzbek, with some in Russian. Coverage is generally critical of the Uzbek government with a focus on human rights issues. Links are to the Ezgulik rights group ( and Birlik (

Muslim Uzbekistan ( Muslim Uzbekistan provides harsh criticism of the Uzbek government in four languages (Arabic, English, Russian, and Uzbek) with a focus on the persecution of Muslims. The website describes its aim as "covering the real state of affairs in the country, revealing and reporting to the international community the facts of the genocide being carried out against Muslims by the current authoritarian, terrorist regime..." While careful to avoid overt support for violence, Muslim Uzbekistan is sympathetic to Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. The site also includes numerous Islamic educational resources in Uzbek.

Several long-standing independent websites have recently stopped functioning. These include (, which posted a message to readers on July 4 informing them that the site, which has been blocked in Uzbekistan since May 2005, will cease operations; Arena (, a press freedom site that has not been updated since June 2006; and Free Uzbekistan (

But a number of new websites provide a forum for exiled Uzbek journalists to give their perspective on events in their homeland. Journalists whose articles appear on these sites include a number of former correspondents for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) who have since relocated to the United States and Europe such as Galima Bukharbayeva, Yusuf Rasul, Tulqin Qoraev, and Hurmat Bobojon, as well as former BBC correspondent Matluba Azamatova. Many materials are cross-posted, appearing simultaneously on several of the sites listed below.

Isyonkor ( Isyonkor (Rebel) focuses on political news from Uzbekistan and literary works by exiled and out-of-favor writers. It includes a considerable dossier on unrest in Andijon in 2005 and its aftermath. All materials are in Uzbek. The website notes that "the current political regime in Uzbekistan has liquidated rebellions and crushed dissent. But no matter how great the pressure, the extent of dissent and rebellion is greater than the regime can imagine." Opposition materials are supportive of the Erk party and critical of Birlik. Isyonkor lists as its partners the sites and MediaUz (see below). ( Uzbekinfo is similar in format and content to Isyonkor, but with materials in Russian as well as Uzbek. The website includes numerous cross-posts from (see below).

Bolg'a ( Bolg'a (Hammer) describes itself as an "Uzbek youth movement." The site proclaims, "Let's unite to fight this regime in a peaceful and democratic way! The Bolg'a movement is your movement!" Most articles are political and appear to be cross-posted from Uzbekinfo and other antiregime sites, including MuslimUzbekistan. All materials are in Uzbek.

MediaUz ( Describing its as an "independent journalists' site," MediaUz features a mix of original materials and cross-posted articles from other sites in this group, as well as news from outside sources such as the Voice of America's Uzbek Service. All materials are in Uzbek.

Dialog ( Opened on June 20, Dialog describes itself as an "independent information and analysis publication created to cover various spheres of life in Uzbekistan and the states of Central Asia." The website's founders note that "at present, there are few Internet publications in Uzbekistan that provide an opportunity for expression, including critical expression, for all journalists." The site's focus is broad, with original materials on social problems and free speech issues, excerpts from the Uzbek official press, and news from outside sites. Materials are available in English, Russian, and Uzbek. ( describes itself as created on July 29 by the Germany-based Uzbekistan Press Freedom Group. The website was originally created under the aegis of IWPR but was dormant for over a year after IWPR's staff was forced to leave Uzbekistan in the crackdown that followed the Andijon unrest. Current materials focus on social and political issues in Uzbekistan. All new articles are in Russian. The link to the Uzbek version of the site still works, but materials there have not been updated since 2005.

A related site is (, which bills itself as an "independent Internet newspaper" and covers domestic political, social, and economic issues in Uzbekistan. In a July 5 report, Reporters Without Borders stated that UzMetronom was started by the independent journalist Sergei Yezhkov in April and blocked within Uzbekistan by the Uzbek authorities on June 26. The website's tone is critical, but not stridently so, and the focus is on the internal dynamics of the Karimov regime, with considerable attention to personnel changes. The site is entirely in Russian and materials are unsigned. Like Dialog, UzMetronom includes a short, frequently updated overview of the Uzbek official press.

New pro-government sites have sprung up as well: ( describes itself as a news agency belonging to the Interjournalist club. It presents content in English, Russian, and Uzbek that is favorable to the Uzbek government yet varies by language. For example, the website's Analysis section recently ran an AFP story in English with a critical take on the Uzbek government's actions against U.S.-based Newmont Mining ( The story did not appear in either the Russian or Uzbek versions of the site. Meanwhile, the Uzbek version of the site contains more ideologically charged materials, including long articles from the Uzbek official press about the need for Uzbekistan to follow its own path, and exposes of the West's nefarious plans to foment revolution in Central Asia. ( The website description says that was created "with the help of the public foundation for the support and development of independent print media and news agencies." It features original materials and reprints from Uzbek official sources in English, Russian, and Uzbek, as well as pro-government articles from such sources as Russian news agency RIA Novosti. A typical example of the latter genre is an August 7 article from China's "People's Daily" titled "U.S. scheming for 'Great Central Asia' strategy," which takes a negative view of U.S. involvement in the region. and link to each other and frequently post each other's materials. They also contain links to the nominally independent, but practically pro-government, sites of the Uzbek-language newspaper "Hurriyat" ( and the Russian-language news agency Turkiston Press (

If the virtual polarization of Uzbek news and commentary is clear, what remains unclear is whether alternative sources of information are actually available to those who live in Uzbekistan. For one, official statistics put the number of Internet users at well below 1 million in a country of 26 million. Internet censorship is another factor. As IWPR reported on August 17, and reported on August 9, Uzbekistan's security services are actively blocking websites they dislike, a category that includes virtually all of the above-listed sites that publish anything critical of the government. And press watchdog Reporters Without Borders has listed Uzbekistan as one of the world's 15 Internet "black holes."

When the Internet emerged in 1990, it brought with it hopes that it would sweep away obstacles to the free flow of information. The reality has proved more ambiguous, with a glut of information sowing confusion, a digital divide underscoring the persistence of economic inequality, and government-imposed filters limiting access. But the medium is still young and, as it moves into its adolescence, Uzbekistan looks set to be one of its key testing grounds. (Daniel Kimmage)

CHINA/KAZAKHSTAN: FORCES HOLD FIRST-EVER JOINT TERRORISM EXERCISES. Kazakhstan and China launched three days of joint counterterrorism exercises on August 24. It is the first time those two countries have held joint security maneuvers, and testifies to China's aggressive pursuit of improved ties with its immediate CIS neighbors. But Beijing has other motives for such new-fashioned cooperation, particularly with its Central Asian neighbors.

It might seem strange that Kazakhs, the ancestors of nomadic warriors, are joining in military maneuvers with forces from China, a country that built a wall to keep such nomads out. More recently, the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan housed nuclear weapons intended, in great part, to repel any Chinese invasion of the USSR.

Those days are gone, however. And a new era of cooperation has begun. China and Kazakhstan now share common ground in the battle against what China calls the "three evils" -- separatism, extremism, and terrorism.

Fighting the three evils is a priority for the security-minded Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO groups China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

This week's Sino-Kazakh exercises are being held under the SCO aegis, as were exercises China held with Kyrgyzstan in 2002.

Quiet Start

The "Tian-Shan-1-2006" exercises got under way in Kazakhstan's eastern Almaty region on August 24 and should move across the border to Yining, a city in China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Officials on both sides of the frontier are refusing to release any troop figures. In fact, it is difficult to get any detailed information about the event. RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contacted the Foreign and Defense ministries about the exercises, but neither had any information.

Islam Dosmailuly, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), told RFE/RL he wasn't even sure if the exercises would happen.

"I don't know if they will [take place] or not," Dosmailuly said. "I'm waiting for information. If [the information] gets here, we'll certainly comment on it. But, for now, I have no information."

The Security Committee's press service said the exercises involve forces from its border unit, the Kazakh Interior Ministry, and the Emergency Situations Ministry. China's Xinhua news agency reported that the Chinese side will have "an unspecified number of personnel" from law enforcement and security services participating. The two sides will practice containing and neutralizing hypothetical terrorist forces and freeing hostages.

Simply Fighting Terrorism?

Kazakhstan has arrested suspects and charged them with terrorism or membership of extremists groups, and Kazakh officials claim to have thwarted terrorist plots in the past. But to date, there have not been any acts of terrorism committed on Kazakh soil.

But Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a senior analyst at Kazakhstan's Strategic Studies and Research Institute, said there are practical reasons for holding exercises with China.

"You know, there are many common threats and these are [well-known] already," Syroyezhkin said. "There is drug trafficking, immigration, and religious extremism and political extremism. There are a number of threats. And these are counterterrorism exercises, [against] international terrorism. Why should they not hold them? Look, there's a mess in Afghanistan; there must be some mutual cooperation in that matter. And anyway, it is not the first time they have held such exercises. Last year, or before last year, it was organized as a planned maneuver, there is nothing suspicious about that."

Kazakhstan has held similar multinational exercises in counterterrorism in the past -- with NATO forces under that alliance's Partnership For Peace program, and with forces from the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Beijing's Interest

The exercises are arguably more in line with China's interest -- something seemingly borne out by the choice of venue for the exercises in China. Yining was the scene of rioting in 1997 between Han Chinese and ethnic minority Uyghurs that Chinese officials say killed more than 100 people.

Uyghurs have inhabited the area now called Xinjiang for centuries. Uyghurs are Turkic Muslims who have fought numerous battles for independence against Chinese imperial dynasties. Once, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Uyghurs even helped keep the "Son Of Heaven" on his throne.

One of the first signs of the decay of previous Chinese dynasties was the loss of areas in the west, where ethnic Uyghurs live. More recently, the country's Communist leadership is preempting such a possibility by sending millions of Han Chinese into Xinjiang, where there is now near parity with the Uyghurs.

Maisy Weicherding is a Central Asia researcher for Amnesty International. She said she was skeptical of Beijing's official characterization of some Uyghurs.

"Although the Chinese government likes to depict and allege that a lot of the Uyghurs that leave Xinjiang and take refuge in Central Asia are terrorists or have links to terrorist or extremist or separatist movements, we have actually never seen any evidence to prove that men who have been put on trial in China for terrorism or separatism offenses are actually guilty of these offenses," Weicherding said.

China has launched several highly publicized campaigns against separatism in Xinjiang since the Yining riots nearly a decade ago.

Corinna-Barabera Francis of Amnesty International questioned the timing, noting that there appears to be little threat of terrorism in China.

"There in fact have not been any terrorist incidents that we know of [in China], and in fact the Chinese government itself has said that there had not been any terrorist incidents for quite a few years."

Kazakhstan is not merely looking east this week to ready itself for possible terrorist threats. In the west, along its Caspian coast, Kazakh military forces are joining other CSTO troops for the "Rubezh-2006" maneuvers, which run from August 23 to 27.

(By Bruce Pannier. Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report. Originally published on August 24, 2006.)

CENTRAL ASIA: KYRGYZSTAN UNDER FIRE OVER MISSING UZBEK ASYLUM SEEKERS. Four Uzbek asylum seekers who had sought shelter in southern Kyrgyzstan after the bloody crackdown in Andijon in May 2005 have gone missing in the past week. At least two were reportedly whisked to Uzbekistan. Rights groups and foreign governments are urging Kyrgyzstan to abide by its international obligations and ensure the safety of any Uzbek refugees or asylum seekers on Kyrgyz territory. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is meanwhile considering resettling 65 Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers living around Osh to a safer place.

Last week, men in plainclothes presenting themselves as Kyrgyz security officials appeared at the temporary homes of Valijon Bobojonov and Saidullo Shokirov. Then they loaded them into cars and drove them away.

Although the men who appeared at Bobojonov's house reportedly vowed to return him soon, the 40-year-old asylum seeker has not returned.

A few days after he was taken away, he was reportedly in custody in Andijon, where human rights activists fear his life could be at risk. Shokirov is said to have met a similar fate.

Officials Deny Knowledge

Uzbek authorities have denied any knowledge of the two men's whereabouts.

On August 22, a pro-government website ( quoted Uzbek security officials as saying that neither Bobojonov nor Shokirov are sought for alleged roles in the antigovernment uprising that led to last year's bloodshed.

Uzbek authorities have prosecuted more than 100 Andijon residents for their alleged roles in the violence, and have demanded the extradition of at least one Kyrgyz and 12 Uzbek nationals who are currently in Russian custody.

The Kyrgyz government has not commented on last week's disappearances.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Azamat Ababakirov, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on August 24 that the United States has issued a statement urging Kyrgyz authorities to face their responsibilities.

"According to information provided by the [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)] and Kyrgyz nongovernmental organizations, those two [asylum seekers] are currently being held in a pretrial detention center in the Uzbek city of Andijon," Ababakirov said. "We urge the Kyrgyz government to swiftly and fully investigate those reports. We urge the Kyrgyz government to take immediate steps to ensure the safety and rights of all refugees and people awaiting refugee status."

Shortly afterward, news emerged that two more Uzbek asylum seekers had disappeared from their accommodations in Osh.

The head of the local branch of Kyrgyzstan's State Committee on Migration and Employment, Nurila Yoldasheva, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that she was informed of these latest disappearances on August 23.

"[On August 23] we were informed that two [more] people had disappeared," Yoldasheva said. "Those two people are Bakhtiyor Ahmedov and Ilhom Abdunabiev."

...Despite Contact

What Yoldasheva did not say, however, is that just a few hours before being reported missing, the two men were on the premises of her department.

Solijon Mayitov, who heads the nongovernmental group Osh Justice (Osh Adilettigi), told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the circumstances of the latest disappearances remain unclear.

"On the morning [of August 23], [Ahmedov and Abdunabiev] were summoned to the [local branch of the] Committee on Migration and Employment," Mayitov said. "Upon leaving the building, they got into a collective taxi. Their whereabouts since then have been unknown."

Mayitov said he fears Ahmedov and Abdunabiev may have been handed over to Uzbek authorities as well.

"We suppose those two men -- like the other two who disappeared earlier -- were in one way or another secretly taken out of Kyrgyzstan," Mayitov said.

International Concern

In New York, the watchdog Human Rights Watch has expressed similar concerns.

HRW Europe and Central Asia Director Holly Cartner wrote in a statement issued today that the group is "afraid these [four] men have been handed over to Uzbek authorities and that their lives are in danger."

Last month (July 10), an exiled activist of Uzbekistan's "Erk" opposition party, Isroil Holdorov, also disappeared in Osh.

Describing security conditions in southern Kyrgyzstan as "dire," HRW today called upon the UNHCR to move refugees "straight to the capital" Bishkek.

Talking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from Geneva, UNHCR spokeswoman Helene Caux said the organization was actually considering resettling all 65 registered Andijon refugees and asylum seekers from Osh.

"We are not able to provide complete protection to these people, so we're trying to get them out of Osh because five people have already disappeared in less than two months," Caux said. "It cannot continue like this."International organizations and foreign governments severely criticized Kyrgyzstan in early August for deporting four UN refugees and one asylym seeker to Uzbekistan.

The four -- Zhahongir Maqsudov, Yaqub Toshboev, Odilzhon Rahimov, Rasulzhon Pirmatov and Fayoz Tojihalilov -- had been arrested on Uzbek warrants in June and September of last year. Up until their deportations, they had remained in custody at Osh prison.

Uzbek authorities said all five were immediately charged with having actively participated in the Andijon unrest.

In a statement issued one day after the August 9 extraditions, the European Union's Finnish Presidency called Kyrgyzstan's decision "an extremely serious violation" of a 1951 Refugee Convention. That convention states that "no refugee should be forcibly returned to their country of origin."

Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman, Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, has accused the Kyrgyz government of allowing Uzbek security services to operate freely in Osh Region, which is home to dozens of former Andijon residents.

As a result, Bakir-uulu said, even Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Uzbeks live in fear. (By Jean-Christophe Peuch. Originally published on August 25, 2006.)

TAJIKISTAN: OPPOSITION DISORGANIZED AS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION NEARS. Tajikistan's three major opposition parties are in disarray less than three months before the country's presidential elections. The Islamic Renaissance Party, the Social-Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party of Tajikistan have postponed naming their presidential candidates until their conventions in September.

With a presidential election scheduled for November in Tajikistan, the young, forward-thinking leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (HNIT), Mohiedin Kabiri, is in a desperate state following the death of the charismatic leader of the party, Said Abdullo Nuri.

Nuri -- who died on August 9 after "a serious illness" -- was the backbone of opposition leadership in Tajikistan. Kabiri now has the daunting task of leading the party in Nuri's shadow. He also needs to bring energy and a new strategy for his party in the presidential election, and must assert his authority to bring unity to the some 26,000 members of the HNIT.

Not Enthused About Running

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, the 42-year-old Kabiri spoke of his concerns about what he describes as outside attempts to break up the HNIT. He claims the party is fully united behind his leadership but he is hesitant when asked if he will be a candidate in the presidential election, indicating that he will "first present his case to the party convention in September."

"If the party convention insists and says it has no alternative, I will have my conditions [for becoming a candidate]," he said. "But I'm hopeful that this will not be the case and they will accept my argument, and perhaps have a different view on the selection of a candidate."

But if Kabiri does not want to be HNIT's candidate in the election, who might be possible candidates? The veteran politician Said Ibrahim Nazar, one of the founders of the Islamic Renaissance Party, seems to be the favorite. Another possible candidate is the hard-line Mohammad Ali Haiit, who has remained one of the top officials in the party since 1990. There is also uncertainty about the party's official policy, and Kabiri seems to want to wait before deciding on a strategy.

"In the present circumstances, the easiest and simplest choice, in my view, is to influence the thinking of those in power," he said. "If they are not ready to accept others in power, this could have severe repercussions...if they intend, for example, to stay in power by any means, even by resorting to violence, this is not very helpful. So the best way for keeping peace in society and having influence is to influence those in power."

Party Beset With Problems

An even bigger task is awaiting the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (HDT) in the absence of its influential leader, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, who is serving a 23-year prison term. The acting leader of the party, Rahmatullo Valliev, says he will announce his candidacy. But there are at least four other contenders and the final choice will be made by party members at their mid-September convention. Valliev, who is in his early 50s, said the party's entire managing board may be changed.

The HDT -- which was one of the most influential in the early 1990s -- still suffers from a split in its ranks in 1994. This has led to a chronic leadership crisis that heated up some six months ago when part of its membership -- allegedly encouraged by the ruling People's Democratic Party --- reportedly became pro-government under the name Vatan.

With that lost support it will be almost impossible for Valliev -- or any other HDT candidate -- to collect the 160,000 signatures needed to register as a candidate. Even though the HDT has only 4,500 members -- according to the best estimates -- Valliev told RFE/RL in an interview that he is convinced they will get enough signatures to register a candidate.

"I think once the party selects a candidate then we will work with our provincial branches to ensure they collect the necessary number of signatures," he said. "So today we are working hard preparing for the elections. Some of our members are in Russia and we have requested the Central Electoral Commission to create the necessary procedure for collecting the signatures of those in give them the necessary forms to fill in and so on."

Possible Candidate Recovering

Many observers of the Tajik presidential election are hopeful that the outspoken leader of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Zoirov, will pose a serious challenge -- if only verbal -- to President Rakhmonov. However, even that hope seemed dashed last month when Zoirov suffered a stroke that affected his speech.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service visited Zoirov at his home on August 22. He has recently returned from treatment in Switzerland and he seemed very well recovered and spoke well. He said he will indeed put forward his name as a presidential candidate. He reiterated his stance that Rakhmonov has been ruling unconstitutionally since 1999. Zoirov said if Rakhmonov is a candidate he will have to withdraw his candidacy from what, in his view, will be an illegal presidential election.

"I am adamant that I was right from the start," he said. "I spoke to several legal experts of high caliber in Russia; they studied the details of the [Tajik] Constitution and said collectively that according to the constitutional amendment in 2003, Imomali Rakhmonov does not have the legal right to put his name forward as a candidate."

President Rakhmonov, meanwhile, is benefiting from the might of his political apparatus and his total control of the media and has found grounds to jail any other possible contender, such as his ex-bodyguard, General Ghaffor Mirzoiev, or former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov. Rakhmonov continues to weaken the chances of opposition candidates by all means possible while appearing to promote what he describes as democratic elections. (By Massoumeh Torfeh. Originally published on August 24, 2006.)

TURKMENISTAN: RFE/RL CORRESPONDENT, TWO OTHERS GIVEN HARSH SENTENCES. Three people, including an RFE/RL reporter, went on trial on August 25 in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat. The hearings lasted just a few minutes and ended with the judge handing long jail sentences to all three defendants.

The trial of RFE/RL Turkmen correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova, aged 58, and her two codefendants -- human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev, 35, and Sapardurdy Khajiev, 47 -- opened at 10 a.m. local time.

The hearings took place behind closed doors at the Azatlyk district court in Ashgabat, where Turkmen dissidents are usually tried. Azatlyk -- which means freedom or liberty -- is also the name of RFE/RL in the Turkmen language.

Tried Without Lawyers

Tajigul Begmedova, who chairs the exiled Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF) rights group and is Khajiev's sister-in-law, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service the trial was over in no time.

"According to the information we got from their lawyers, Sapardurdy Khajiev was sentenced to seven years in a high-security jail," she said. "Annakurban Amanklychev got seven years in a regular prison and Ogulsapar Muradova -- six years, also in a regular prison. They were all charged with possessing ammunition. Ogulsapar [Muradova] denied the charges brought against her, and the presiding judge used that to give her a heavier sentence. Sapardurdy [Khajiev] also denied the charges brought against him."

All three defendants were arrested in mid-June and have spent more than two months incommunicado in a National Security Service pretrial detention center.

THF activist Ammanklychev was mentioned in a June 19 televised address in which National Security Minister Geldymukhammed Ashirmukhammedov claimed to have foiled an alleged foreign-funded plot to destabilize the country.

Conspiracy Theories

Ashirmukhammedov said the purported conspiracy also involved a number of Western diplomats.

Yet, none of these allegations ever resurfaced in the run-up to the trial.

Human rights defenders say the arms and ammunitions reportedly found in Amanklychev's car upon his arrest were likely planted by security officials.

The also blame authorities for other violations committed during the pretrial detention of the three codefendants.

Talking to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service ahead of today's court hearings, Jean-Francois Julliard, of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media watchdog, expressed his concerns.

Rights Groups Worried

"We are really worried about this trial," Julliard said. "We already know that the three people who are being [tried] today will be sentenced to very long prison terms because we know that justice is not independent at all in Turkmenistan. Nobody can access this trial. Nobody can have a look at the prisoners. We don't know in which [physical] condition they are. The trial is closed to the press [and] to diplomats. So we are already sure that this trial and the judgments will not be fair."

What THF chairwoman Begmedova said after the trial confirmed Juillard's apprehensions.

"According to our information, the trial was behind closed doors," Begmedova said. "The court's building was cordoned off by armed soldiers. We also learned that all other pending court cases that were expected to be heard today were suspended. Neither Annakurban [Amanklychev]'s lawyer, nor Ogulsapar [Muradova]'s had been officially notified about the beginning of the trial. The lawyers were not allowed to meet with their clients or to bring them water and food [during their pretrial detention]."

Begmedova further said only Judge Guncha Khajikulieva, State Prosecutor Murad Muratliev, and the defendants were allowed to attend the hearings.

"Many people tried to attend today's trial," she said. "But all the streets leading to the court's building were closed. Relatives had arrived at 9 a.m., hoping they would be allowed into the courtroom. But they were not allowed in. They didn't allow anyone in. Even the lawyers were authorized to meet with their clients for just one minute before being kicked out by soldiers."

Begmedova said lawyers would appeal today's verdict.

RSF said today in a statement it was "disgusted" by what it called the "absurd, unjust and disgraceful" sentences imposed on the three defendants "in a country where press freedom does not exist."

The group had said in an earlier (August 23) statement it was "appalled by the attitude of the Turkmen authorities, who are flouting the basic rules of justice and human rights with impunity." (By Jean-Christophe Peuch. Originally published on August 25, 2006.)

KYRGYZSTAN: FOREIGN MINISTER DEFENDS TIES WITH TASHKENT. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov was interviewed by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek on August 29. Jekshenkulov addressed such topics as Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations, the plight of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, and territorial and energy issues.

RFE/RL: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are trying to find ways to improve their relations. Some say that one of the reasons for that is a necessity to fight religious extremism in Kyrgyzstan. How do you assess the improved relations between these two countries?

Alikbek Jekshenkulov: Foreign policy is carried out, not only that but a policy is carried out, in the interests of the state. Our nation and the whole society are saying -- and also the international community are saying -- that we have to have good relations with our neighbors. There were a lot of situations, and a lot of reasons in the past [for some shortcomings in these relations]. Recently, our president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, held three or four meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and after these negotiations a new stage began in bilateral ties [between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan]. That is why I think there will be some positive results in the coming years. Of course, it would be difficult to say that all troubles will be solved [in a short time], but we have hope. In any case, our two nations have been finding a common language.

RFE/RL: What kind of questions will Kyrgyzstan ask during the upcoming visit of President Bakiev to Uzbekistan at the end of September, and what type of cooperation with Tashkent is in Kyrgyzstan's national interest?

Jekshenkulov: We think one of the major issues is to maintain a constant dialogue between the two countries and continue to support each other. The Ferghana Valley is a densely populated area. There are a lot of very important issues between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, whether they are political, economic, or humanitarian issues. We are starting to deal with all of these major problems, and we are starting to understand each other. That is why I believe President Bakiev's visit at the end of September will be fruitful. First of all, among political matters, the visa problem is a big issue. Second, we have to discuss the border issues, and third there are terrorism and religious-extremism issues.... In any case, we have a lot of problems in every field to deal with.

RFE/RL: Regarding the border issues, it is reported that 1,043 of 2,195 kilometers of the common border have been delimited and this delimitation is expected to be approved. Please tell me how negotiations on the disputed strips of the border will be carried out.

Jekshenkulov: We've reached a common opinion that the border issue must be resolved step-by-step. If there is no dispute regarding the 1,043-kilometer borderline then we should just decide on its juridical status. And the special commissions have to continue to work on the other [disputed] sections. The members of the [Kyrgyz] commission have to protect every single meter, every kilometer. As you know, we don't have a big population and we don't have a huge territory either. That's why we are ready to protect our national interests.

RFE/RL: You touched upon the national interests, but there are issues like water reservoirs, like Kempirabat, built on Kyrgyz territory [but claimed by Uzbekistan]. The status of these reservoirs is unclear even now and Uzbekistan continues to keep them under their jurisdiction. Will there be a chance to raise this issue, to return it to Kyrgyzstan?

Jekshenkulov: I will stress that there are a lot of issues to be raised, that is why it is hard to say that everything will be resolved by one visit. That's why in the first stage we will discuss very major, very important questions. After that we'll go to the others, like [Kempirabat]. If there will be warm political relations between the two countries I think these questions might be resolved.

RFE/RL: The international community is raising concerns about the deportation of five Uzbek refugees to Uzbekistan. The Prosecutor-General's Office returned them and local human rights campaigners are harshly criticizing this decision. Do you have any information from the Foreign Ministry regarding the further plight of these refugees?

Jekshenkulov: These deported people are Uzbekistan's citizens. That's why this is not our matter. We have to consider the plight of Kyrgyzstan's citizens. This is not a political question, this is a juridical question. Appeals by those five people were considered by courts, starting from the district court to the high court, and the Kyrgyz courts did not give them refugee status. Of course, we are continuing to maintain Kyrgyzstan's image and we are continuing to meet our international commitments. There are human rights organizations that criticize us but I would say last year when Kyrgyz authorities were in a very difficult situation we sent 439 Uzbek refugees to a third country. That's why I think our society has to support us. If amongst these were people who cut the throat of the prosecutor-general and if these were people who were selling drugs before the Andijon events, that's why there were criminal cases against these five people. In such a situation how can a Prosecutor-General's Office decide differently? Everyone should understand this correctly.

RFE/RL: There are other concerns in Kyrgyzstan, for instance four Uzbek citizens recently disappeared from Kyrgyz territory. Such events happened at the beginning of the independence years. It was reported at that time that Uzbek special forces abducted them in Kyrgyzstan [and took them back to Uzbekistan]. Now the same practice is being repeated and there is another concern about Bishkek moving closer to such a dictatorial regime as Uzbekistan; people even fear that Kyrgyzstan might also go along the path of the Tashkent regime.

Jekshenkulov: I am surprised at the opinions of some of our politicians. If we don't have good relations with Uzbekistan they will criticize: "why aren't you improving relations with Uzbekistan?!" Now, just as we are improving our relations with Tashkent they say "won't we be like Uzbekistan?" I don't support such criticism. Every former Soviet republic has chosen its own path since becoming independent. Uzbekistan has chosen its own way, we have to respect this but we also have our own path. If there is cooperation between the security services of these two countries regarding security matters, is it bad? As you know, not only Kyrgyzstan but also the major leading states in the world are not able to fight terrorism alone. That is why we have to cooperate with the whole international community and with our neighbors in this matter and we are carrying out this mission. Regarding the latest abduction of the Uzbek citizens, we don't have any information about [what you claim]. These might be rumors. In this matter our security services are continuing their investigation.

RFE/RL: There is another difficult problem connected to the water and energy system: Uzbekistan declined to buy Kyrgyz electricity. Will this issue be raised during the upcoming visit by Bakiev to resolve it in both country's interests?

Jekshenkulov: These water and energy issues are very complex. It is impossible to resolve them only between these two countries. This is a common regional problem because a common, united energy system was established during the Soviet era. If one party gives water another will give gas and a third will give electricity and so on. This system was continued even after the breakup of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of September in the [Kazakh] city of Astana, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will discuss these issues during their informal summit.... Our experts understand everything, the task is obvious for them. We will protect our national interests, we won't give up anything. (By Jean-Christophe Peuch. Originally published on August 30, 2006.)