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Central Asia Report: April 14, 2004

14 April 2004, Volume 4, Number 15

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. As the violence that rumbled through Uzbekistan on 28 March-1 April ebbed into memory with no further incidents to roil the waters, the region returned to familiar pursuits. Uzbek President Islam Karimov urged the Uzbek people on 7 April to unite "like a fist," assuring them that the perpetrators would be brought to justice and suggesting that the trail of terror led abroad. Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov informed journalists at a 9 April briefing that 54 suspects were under arrest. Qodirov described them as religious extremists from a group that drew its ideological inspiration from Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (also known as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan) and trained its members at the same foreign camps, presumably in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that readied Al-Qaeda fighters. Even as the wheels of justice turned, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development decided on 6 April that it had had enough of Karimov's recalcitrance over reform and announced that it would substantially curtail its involvement in Uzbekistan.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman-in-Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi completed a week-long whirlwind tour that brought him, respectively, to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In advancing the dual causes of regional security and Bulgarian-Central Asian relations, Pasi proved himself a consummate diplomat, maintaining cordial dialogue with five leaders who have rarely managed the same among themselves. Additionally, Pasi said during his visit to Kyrgyzstan that foreign bases in the country are necessary to reduce the threat of terrorism. The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan met in Moscow on 6 April to discuss, yet again, the as-yet unresolved legal status of the Caspian Sea. The parties respectfully agreed to continue the discussion of their disagreements in another place and at another time, perhaps at the presidential level in Tehran toward the end of the year.

Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev affirmed on 7 April that Kazakh peacekeepers will leave Iraq as scheduled on 30 May, leading some to trumpet Kazakhstan's impending departure from the coalition, while others noted that the peacekeepers number only 27 and their departure date remains unchanged. After Russian television nervously suggested that Kazakhstan might be pondering NATO membership, a Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman hastened to smooth ruffled feathers, saying that Kazakhstan's "full-scale cooperation with NATO on a number of international programs" has not given rise to any desire to join the alliance. Kazakhstan also witnessed a minor ministerial reshuffling, Constitutional Council approval for a controversial law on elections, and a weekend demonstration attended by 5,000 calling for the freedom of imprisoned opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov.

Four Tajik opposition parties -- the Democratic Party, Social-Democratic Party, Islamic Renaissance Party, and Socialist Party -- promised to join forces to observe elections and guarantee the observance of democratic principles. The union is purely tactical and implies no common program. Tajik law-enforcement officials broke up a hitherto unknown group of religious extremists -- Bay'at -- arresting 20 people on suspicion of committing 60 murders. Finally, a grumpy Saparmurat Niyazov lost his patience at a 5 April cabinet meeting over $287 million in wage arrears to state employees. The Turkmen president-for-life dressed down his minister of economy and finance and threatened to fire him unless workers receive their back pay within a week.

TERROR IN UZBEKISTAN: THE AFTERMATH. Relative calm has come to Uzbekistan in the wake of the violent events of 28 March-1 April, but it has brought with it scant additional clarity. Two significant fault lines have emerged in discussions of the violence, both of them separating Uzbek officialdom from much, but not all, other commentary. The first runs through the question of how to categorize the events, and the second how they were covered by the media.

Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov presented the official view at a 9 April news conference in Tashkent. Qodirov told journalists that interviews with more than 700 witnesses and victims have led to the arrest of 54 individuals, of whom 45 have been formally charged. Thirty of the 33 dead militants have been identified; the authorities hope to identify the remainder with the help of DNA testing.

According to Qodirov, a number of underground "jamoats" -- societies, or groups -- of religious extremists began to operate in Bukhara and Tashkent in 2000. The report posted by official news agency UzA said that the jamoats conducted ideological indoctrination with the help of "illegal audio, video and printed materials, as well as CD-ROMs. An analysis of their contents showed that the ideas they stressed included calls for the violent overthrow of the constitutional system and the creation of an Islamic state with its subsequent transformation into a 'caliphate.'"

While Uzbek President Islam Karimov's 29 March address blamed "dark forces" for the incidents, subsequent statements by lower-ranking officials (including Prosecutor-General Qodirov) were more specific, blaming Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) while suggesting ties to Al-Qaeda. When Karimov spoke to journalists at Tashkent airport on 7 April before his departure for Latvia on an official visit, he said: "The investigation and search activities will be completed. Everything I said in my address on TV [on 29 March] will come true," Uzbek Radio reported the same day.

Indeed, Qodirov hewed closely to the president's original comments at the 9 April briefing, implying ties to well-known radical organizations without making them explicit. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service quoted him as saying, "[The militants'] suicidal subversive actions were based on the propaganda of members of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan [another name for the IMU]." Qodirov noted that the detainees have testified that "they received instruction and underwent military training at camps with Arab instructors. At the same time, Al-Qaeda fighters also received training from those instructors."

The thrust of the official interpretation was clearest in a 6 April article in the state-run daily "Xalq so'zi." It said, "The majority [of journalists] rightfully consider the acts of terror at the World Trade Center in New York, in commuter trains in Mozdok and Kislovodsk, in Moscow's residential neighborhoods and metro, and at the Children's World store in Tashkent to be 'the work of a single terrorist center that brings together extremist groups of Islamists' (V. Nikonov [director of Russia's Politics Foundation])." A 6 April article in "The Christian Science Monitor" reported that on 4 April Uzbek television described Uzbekistan as the latest victim of terrorists who earlier targeted the United States, Spain, and Russia.

Some observers have indeed viewed the violence in Uzbekistan as part of the larger phenomenon of radical Islamist terror, most notably Zeyno Baran in a 2 April article entitled "The Road from Tashkent to the Taliban" in "National Review Online." In its broad outlines, this view is consistent with statements by Uzbek officials, stressing the role of suicide bombers, the targeting of a children's store, and the possible involvement of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Most specialists, however, have found more difference than similarity, noting that the suicide bombers in Tashkent either blew themselves up or struck at the police, the children's store in question was clearly not the target of the particular attack in question, and no convincing evidence as yet points to a link to Hizb ut-Tahrir, even if one chooses to discount the group's twice-stated official denial of involvement.

The question of responsibility will likely evoke heated discussion for some time. While Hizb ut-Tahrir has vociferously denied any involvement, several dubious claims of responsibility have appeared. The first came in the form of an e-mail in Russian and Uzbek to an obscure anti-Karimov site. The text, hastily composed and laden with errors of spelling and punctuation, said that the attacks were the work of a hitherto unknown group called "Islamic Jihad" and termed them "revenge against the foes of Islam...for the arrest and torture of our brothers and sisters." It contained no information that would lend the claim credibility and most media outlets (including RFE/RL) chose not to cover it. (A second message from the same group and in the same style to the same anti-Karimov site on 5 April referred to "documents recorded on videocassettes" that the group cannot presently make available because the materials "are far away.")

AP reported on 11 April that the "Jihad Islamic Group" had claimed responsibility in a statement posted on "at least three militant Islamic sites." According to this statement, "The Jihad Islamic Group is responsible for all the jihad operations that took place and are still going on in the Islamic state of Uzbekistan.... These operations came as a response to the injustice and brutality practiced by the infidel leaders in this country." Finally, CentrAsia reported on 12 April, citing Israeli press sources, that Egypt's Islamic Jihad had claimed responsibility and promised to continue fighting against the Uzbek government to create an "Islamic state of Uzbekistan." These subsequent statements -- from groups with virtually identical names -- appear to differ from the first "claim" of responsibility only in that they received broader media coverage.

Media coverage itself was another bone of contention. In the uneasy calm after the violence, Uzbekistan's official media reacted angrily to foreign coverage of the events. Russian coverage was deemed especially egregious. An article in "Novosti Uzbekistana" on 9 April began, "The acts of terror by extremists...were unambiguously intended to destabilize Uzbekistan in order to stop its movement along the path of democratic development." It continued, "The views aired on 'Akhborot' [Uzbekistan's main national news broadcast], which reflected this and other positions, drew criticism from Russia's Channel 1 and NTV." The article went on to cite the transcribed text of an "Akhborot" program: "Recent events in Uzbekistan prove once again that for reasons of ambition, or, to be more accurate, provocation, certain media outlets are engaged in the blatant and frenzied falsification of facts. How can one reconcile oneself to machinations based on people's grief, human victims, and an entire people's sorrow?" Though the article avoided specifics, its point was clear -- Russian media provided a false picture of events in Uzbekistan.

The above-mentioned 6 April article in "Xalq So'zi" was even more pointed in its criticism, and its implications: "Have you heard the joke about the destruction of the space shuttle 'Challenger'? Media outlets received telegrams with condolences from all over the world. But the telegram from Moscow arrived 10 minutes before the 'Challenger' crashed.... One could not help but recall this joke when our foreign colleagues -- for example, from [Russia's] NTV television channel -- reported on certain events connected with the terror attacks in our country." The author concluded: "Their goal is not to disseminate objective and accurate information. Their goal is absolutely different: to sow panic and rancor among the civilian population, to make the situation worse. Any rational reader should know where this can lead and what consequences it can have."

Despite the overheated tone, the critical outbursts pointed out certain inaccuracies in Russian coverage. For example, a 31 March article in "Izvestiya" breathlessly titled "Militants Nearly Flood Tashkent" suggested that a bomb blast came close to destroying the Charvoq reservoir and inundating the Uzbek capital; the report later proved to be grossly exaggerated. Then again, the Russian press's penchant for sensationalism extends to domestic coverage as well, and many media observers blamed inaccuracies in the coverage of unfolding events in Uzbekistan on the Uzbek authorities' own reluctance to provide information or to let journalists work unimpeded.

The jeremiads about bias are striking less for their righteous indignation than for their specific focus on Russian coverage. After all, Western media were in many instances far more critical of official Uzbek pronouncements. But while Uzbekistan is largely sealed off from Western media, Russian sources seep in. The ire directed at Russian media shows just how sensitive Uzbek officials are to the presence of alternate sources of information and, more importantly, the possibility that they might influence popular perceptions within Uzbekistan.

TERROR IN UZBEKISTAN: OTHER VIEWS. Below are presented materials on the events of 28 March-1 April that would not be otherwise available in English. The unscientific sampling of popular opinion from Deutsche Welle has been translated from Russian. The reports by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service are written condensations of original broadcasts; they have been translated from Uzbek.

Deutsche Welle (9 April 2004): Tashkent Residents On The Acts Of Terror And The Government: An Alternative Survey

How do residents of Tashkent, a city that has just experienced a series of terror acts, feel about security, ordinary life, and what tomorrow holds? The Uzbek public opinion center Ijtimoiy Fikr conducted a quick survey of the country's population to determine citizens' attitudes toward recent events. Respondents were asked to answer the question: "How do you assess the security measures that have been taken by the country's leadership?" Ninety-eight percent of those surveyed are convinced that the acts of terror were committed by antisocial forces and that a battle is under way between, on the one hand, progress, democracy, and freedom, and, on the other, dark forces that resent the country's independence. The results of the Ijtimoiy Fikr poll show that 99.6 percent of respondents support the leadership's measures to fight terrorism. Our correspondent Nataliya Bushueva conducted an alternative poll on the streets of Tashkent.

Tashkent residents put forward various explanations for what took place. What was the real reason for the explosions? Random passersby in the capital shared their thoughts on this topic with a Deutsche Welle correspondent:

"I think it's just people driven to desperation. It's not organized crime."

"It's primarily popular indignation at the bribes that the police make people pay."

"I think it's insurgents. They want liberation from the crush of the police. Basically, who knows. The prosecutor-general is the one who gives our official answers to these questions. What do people think? Most people are saying that it wasn't Al-Qaeda, but locals who are sick of what's going on."

"Insurgents would never commit suicide, but here they're killing themselves. I think it's terrorists. I agree with the government's point of view on this. I'm just surprised -- why was this necessary?"

"In Bukhara a woman blew herself up. How could she be a terrorist? This was an act of desperation."

"I feel that it's popular anger at the police because the police are blasphemous and indecent."

"These aren't terrorists. People are fed up. I heard that the police killed an old man at the Chorsu market. That's why it happened. My personal opinion is that the police make it impossible for people to live. There's one policeman for each merchant [at the market]! They chase the merchants around as though they're pigeons. I'm a teacher. My salary is a pittance. But they don't give a damn how we live. I think that this is the only reason for these events."

"It's probably insurgents. I mean, once you get out of the capital, people are destitute."

Tashkent residents also express various views on the security measures:

"The security measures are entirely appropriate."

"I support the government in this. Why not? Let them check me! If I'm not involved, I have nothing to hide."

"I think that they're not checking where they should. And they're checking where they shouldn't."

"They're checking everywhere. When people come from the provinces, they ask them what they're doing here and where their travel money is even though they're in their own country. This happened recently. I was in a minibus taxi, and they kicked a husband and wife out of the taxi just because they were from Khorezm. Is that right? They should pay people their wages on time and none of this would happen."

"I feel that these measures are necessary. We have to seek these people out."

"My head is covered. You see how I tied it? And they make me out to be an Islamic extremist. I'm not an Islamic extremist, just a believer. But that's not the point. All of these [security] measures are not the solution. First they have to raise the economic level and give people a chance to get on their feet."

RFE/RL Uzbek Service (30 March 2004): "The Woman Suicide Bomber's Body Was Blown Apart"

Two explosions took place at Tashkent's Chorsu market on 29 March. According to news reports, the explosions were caused by female suicide bombers.

An RFE/RL correspondent went to the Chorsu market to interview eyewitnesses to this event. One of the eyewitnesses recounted that, at first, people did not pay any attention to the explosion that took place in front of the Children's World store. They thought that it must be the police chasing some sellers out of the market. But when he went to the scene, the witness saw several policemen lying on the ground and covered in blood.

According to the second eyewitness, smoke covered everything after the explosion. He counted seven policemen lying on the ground. The woman suicide bomber's body had been blown apart.

The witnesses assert that policemen usually gathered in the morning in front of the Children's World store. The explosion occurred very close to where they were lined up. The second blast took place at the Chorsu bus stop. A female suicide bomber caused that explosion as well. As a result, a girl who was less than four years old was killed and one policeman was wounded.

Officials claim that the explosions are the work of terrorist groups. But some of the sellers and witnesses at Chorsu say that they link these events to a 28 March incident at Chorsu in which a policeman beat to death a 78-year-old man. They suggest that the explosions were a response to the beating death of the old man.

According to information from Tashkent City Hospital No. 1, where the dead and wounded from the blasts were brought, 32 people were hospitalized with injuries, including 16 policemen.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service (29 March 2004): The Death Of An Elderly Man: Why?

According to news reports, a policeman beat an elderly man to death on 28 March at Tashkent's Chorsu market.

According to information an RFE/RL correspondent learned from eyewitnesses, at 8 a.m. on 28 March six policemen stopped a young man who was working as a cart pusher at the market. They wanted to take him to the market's police checkpoint because he lacked the necessary employment documents. Some women trading at the market had goods in the cart, and they tried to stop the police from taking the young man away. This infuriated the policemen, who began to curse and beat the women. A man aged 65-70 who was standing nearby and watching the incident intervened in an attempt to calm the policemen. The police ignored the old man's remarks and brought the young man to the checkpoint. A short time later, one of the policemen returned to the scene. He warned the old man not to intervene in such situations and struck him in the face with his elbow. The old man began bleeding from his nose and mouth, fell to the ground, and died. A police patrol soon arrived at the scene to remove the body. They warned the merchants to keep their mouths shut.

One of the women who witnessed the scene said that at first the merchants tried to prevent the removal of the body. But the police beat them with rubber clubs in an attempt to disperse them. A few people who continued to resist the police were taken away by force. Their fate remains unknown.

According to eyewitnesses, the old man had only been working at the market for a few days. He was so quiet and reserved that others at the market didn't know either his name or where he lived.

The market's administration also claimed that it had no information about the old man. Administration officials said that the body had been taken to the morgue for an autopsy. Because no identification was found on the old man, efforts are also being made to determine his identity.

According to representatives of the Shayxontohur prosecutor's office, the old man died of natural causes and the police had nothing to do with the incident.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service (31 March 2004): Has The Uzbek Press "Bitten Its Tongue"?

An RFE/RL correspondent examined coverage of recent events in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in the local press, and especially in newspapers.

The preliminary information that officials announced about the events of 29 March was printed in virtually all central publications. News about the events of 30 March was limited to a single, identical official bulletin. No further details were provided in the press.

A local journalist who asked that his name not be used described the situation in the press as follows: "There was definitely no openness evident in the press. Journalists couldn't even get close to the scene. This approach to coverage was supposed to prevent people from panicking, but people found everything out anyway!"

The reticence of local journalists was clearly in evidence on central television programs. According to journalist Elmira Hasanova, television reporters couldn't broadcast any information without instructions from above, that is, without permission from the presidential administration. The "Akhborot" news broadcast was under the full supervision of the presidential administration.

At the same time, according to Hasanova, some journalists tried to get information on their own: "But the city hospital and the Ministry of Health refused to provide any information. No local journalists were allowed into the 29 March press conference. They were told to get all of their information from the national news agency [UzA]. In other words, there was a monopoly on information. Even so, UzA itself didn't give out any information without permission from above."

Officials deny that there were any barriers to receiving information about the events that took place in Uzbekistan. They claim that local information agencies distributed sufficient information.

But according to independent observer Alimardon Annaev, the information that was available was absolutely insufficient. For example, when a shootout occurred in Tashkent on 30 March, the civilians who lived in the area received no information about it.

Annaev feels that in such situations, all of the organizations involved should set up a press center to provide a constant stream of updates. This would immediately eliminate any information deficit.

The "Akhborot" evening news broadcast on 30 March criticized some Russian media for their failure to cover events in Uzbekistan objectively. According to Annaev, if the Russian press carried some inaccurate reports, this was the fault of the Uzbek side. After Russian journalists found themselves confronted with a news deficit, they were forced to base their reports on rumors.

In fact, it became more and more difficult to come by official information on events in Uzbekistan. Official information about the special-forces operation in Tashkent (Qibray district, Boyjigit settlement) on 30 March was not forthcoming until 9:30 p.m. Police interfered with the work of journalists who arrived on the scene.

Hasanova commented on the shortage of information: "Our government and official media outdo any terrorist. The lack of information gave rise to all kinds of rumors and sparked tremendous anxiety. It's very easy to throw people into confusion when there are rumors of an explosion in the metro, children taken hostage in kindergarten, and new attacks in the offing."

Representatives of the Prosecutor-General's Office and Interior Ministry would not comment on the subject. They refused to provide any additional explanations, claiming that the 30 March "Akhborot" news broadcast supplied all necessary information.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service (5 April 2004): Qilichbek, Who Became Muhammadamin

Journalists focused their attention on 1 April on the explosion that took place at 8:30 p.m. on 31 March in the Sobir Rahimov neighborhood of Tashkent (Chimboy mahalla, or traditional neighborhood). They hoped to throw some light on the event that had taken place the day before.

Representatives of the Interior Ministry who were still on the scene at 9-10 a.m. refused to answer reporters' questions. A few hours later, Interior Ministry officials left the mahalla. After this, journalists were able to examine the yard where the explosion took place and speak with mahalla residents.

The yard where the alleged terrorist hid and blew himself up is extremely narrow. The gate is not large either. Despite this, there was no evidence of an explosion. Because law-enforcement officials had sealed the gate, journalists examined the yard over the wall. Although traces of blood were visible in the yard, it was difficult to see any evidence of damage to the house from an explosion. It was not possible to determine whether an explosion occurred from an examination of the yard.

According to a young man who lives next door, the person who blew himself up was originally called Qilichbek. He later changed his name to Muhammadamin. For two years, he had been a guard at a mosque.

According to accounts that the young man heard from other residents of the mahalla, Interior Ministry officials chased Qilichbek from the mosque. He fled to his home, where he hid. His wife was also at home. After his wife left, Qilichbek blew himself up. His wife sustained a wound to her face. Their 13-year-old daughter, who was studying Arabic, was not home at the time.

An RFE/RL correspondent was at the Islomobod mosque where Qilichbek occasionally worked as a guard. According to the elderly man who is now working there as a guard, Qilichbek's occupation at the mosque was spreading the faith. He would quietly pray and then leave. The police have claimed, however, that he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Because the mosque's imam [prayer leader] and mutawalli [manager] were giving testimony at the Prosecutor-General's Office, it was not possible to obtain any information from them about Qilichbek. The 8:30 p.m. news broadcast on Uzbek television contained the following official report: "While under investigation by law-enforcement authorities, Qilichbek Azimbekov, who was born in 1965 and resided at 12 Chimboy Street in the Sobir Rahimov neighborhood, committed suicide with an explosive device. There were no dead or wounded among Interior Ministry officials or local residents. An investigation is under way."

Azimbekov's wife and 13-year-old daughter are apparently now testifying at the Prosecutor-General's Office. There is no information on their exact whereabouts or on the conditions in which they are being held.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service (5 April 2004): People Condemn Terror, But....

Security measures are being tightened throughout Uzbekistan in connection with the tragic events that have recently taken place in Tashkent. People are expressing various views of these events.

Most people in Qashqadaryo strongly condemn these actions. They feel that the events cannot be justified either by religious or social factors because their victims include both the innocent and the guilty. But while Uzbek officials insist that the explosions have a foreign source and were the work of religious extremists, not everyone agrees. According to one independent observer, the explosions can also be interpreted as stemming from the socioeconomic difficulties in Uzbekistan. As for the reactions, one cannot ignore the hard times Uzbeks are going through. These tragic events can also be seen as a popular protest against the government and the state.

Independent observer Ismoil Rahmonqulov said that the people who took up arms and blew themselves up may have acted out of desperation at their inability to garner a response to their problems from the authorities. We cannot be sure of this, however. What we can state with confidence is that these acts did not emerge from dissatisfaction without cause. It is no secret to anyone that life in Uzbekistan is getting worse by the day, and the explosions are also a result of this.

"The fact that mainly law-enforcement officials were the victims of the explosions shows that these acts were directed against the police. This is an indication that war has been declared on the police," read one report from an independent source. Independent observers in Qashqadaryo confirm that this view is justified.

According to Rahmonqulov, instead of protecting ordinary citizens, law-enforcement authorities are only interested in bribes. "Perhaps people who could no longer suffer this injustice took up arms?" he said.

The events in Tashkent have led to a strengthening of security measures in the provinces as well. The situation in Qashqadaryo over the last few days illustrates this. Armed police patrols carefully search cars on the road. Institutes, colleges, and schools are closed. Various administrative buildings are under heavy guard.