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Central Asia Report: September 1, 2004

1 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 33

KAZAKHSTAN VOTES 2004 -- Get all the info on the candidates and parties in the upcoming Kazakh elections. Go to:

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Foreign ministers of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization met in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 27 August to ratify Russia's accession to the organization, which will now include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev hailed the meeting in remarks the next day. He also needled the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for its excessive focus on humanitarian issues, an increasingly popular theme in the CIS after Russia initiated a statement by several CIS countries critical of the OSCE in early July. President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with World Trade Organization (WTO) General Director Supachai Panitchpakdi on 26 August to discuss Kazakhstan's progress toward WTO membership.

Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission put the country's Saylau electronic voting system through its final paces, deeming it technically reliable in the run-up to 19 September parliamentary elections. Other had their doubts about e-voting. Communist Party First Secretary Serikbolsyn Abdildin said that the authorities are introducing e-voting "to ensure falsified election results." Also concerned about elections was the Republican Network of Independent Observers, which told a 25 August news conference that the executive branch continues to interfere in the work of local election commissions and existing legislation fails to provide all candidates with equal campaigning opportunities. For its part, the Central Election Commission criticized 199 representatives of political parties for skipping sessions of the local election commissions on which they hold seats.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation led by Tapio Saavalainen wrapped up a 12-day visit to Kyrgyzstan on 26 August, concluding that the business situation has remained stagnant since 1999, with corruption the greatest impediment to a larger inflow of foreign investment. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev politely agreed to disagree, calling objective factors such as the country's isolation and related transportation difficulties a more important limiting factor than corruption. Kyrgyz penal officials announced that Feliks Kulov, the imprisoned leader of opposition party Ar-Namys, will be eligible for parole only after 12 November 2005, putting an end to rumors that Kulov, considered a political prisoner by his supporters, might go free in the summer of 2004.

Russia and Tajikistan reached an agreement that will give Russia a 51 percent stake in Tajikistan's unfinished Sungtuda hydropower plant for $100 million. The failure of several opposition newspapers to find an alternative printing house after tax authorities closed the Jiyonkhon press on 18 August sparked international concern, as representatives of the EU and the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe expressed fears for the country's independent press. The deputy chairman of the unregistered Taraqqiyot party was arrested, possibly for preparing documents for the International Court of Justice in The Hague on the party's failure to obtain official registration. The Interior Ministry announced that it has arrested 20 activists of the extremist organization Bayat in northern Tajikistan. And prosecutors announced on 24 August that they have evidence that former Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev, who was arrested on 6 August, murdered an Interior Ministry official in 1998 and committed other crimes. They said that they will bring full formal charges once they have finished their investigation.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov removed chief mufti Kakageldi Vepaev, replacing him with the little-known Rovshen Allaberdiev. Also on the spiritual front, Volume 2 of Niyazov's "Rukhnama," or Book of the Spirit, debuted with public readings in parliament. The country's official Internet newspaper wrote that deputies "held their breath, hearkening to every word of a book that yet further deepens our understanding of the unbounded spiritual world of the Turkmen...."

On 24 August Uzbekistan's Supreme Court handed down sentences ranging from six to 18 years for 15 people convicted of involvement in the late March-early April violence that claimed nearly 50 lives in Tashkent and Bukhara. The trial focused on the ideological influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir on Uzbek militants, despite the organization's denial of involvement in Uzbek terror, and on 26 August Uzbek President Islam Karimov criticized European countries in general, and Great Britain in particular, for failing to take more stringent actions against the group. Karimov also promised that his country will hold large-scale military exercises with Russia in Uzbekistan in 2005.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yokiro Kawaguchi visited, in order Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan in an effort to strengthen Japan's relations with Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, she attended a "Central Asia-plus-Japan" meeting of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization.

UZBEK TERROR TRIAL A MISSED OPPORTUNITY. Uzbekistan's Supreme Court handed down the first prison sentences on 24 August for involvement in the shoot-outs and bomb blasts that rocked the country in late March-early April. Based almost entirely on the defendants' confessions, the verdict did not come as a surprise. The trial, though more open than past proceedings in Uzbekistan, left many important questions unanswered. But the greatest mystery is the following -- why did Uzbek authorities choose to mount such an unconvincing spectacle against the backdrop of an official explanation that is, despite the trial's obvious flaws, in many ways compelling.

The trial lasted from 26 July to 24 August, pausing from 30 July until 17 August after three suicide bombings occurred in Tashkent on 30 July. The 13 men and two women faced an array of charges, including terrorism, religious extremism, and explosives and weapons possession. The terrorism charge carries the death penalty in Uzbekistan. Noting, however, that the defendants confessed and cooperated with the investigation, prosecutor Murod Solihov eschewed the death penalty, asking instead for sentences ranging from nine to 20 years. The court followed the prosecutor's recommendations but reduced nearly all of the sentences by two-three years. Furqat Yusupov and Farhod Qozoqboev received the longest sentences -- 18 years each.

Furqat Yusupov's testimony in court on 27 July, as reported the same day by Uzbek television, is fairly typical of the confessions that formed the backbone of the case against the defendants. Yusupov told the court that he joined Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in 2001 while visiting a mosque to learn how to say prayers properly. Banned in Uzbekistan as an extremist group, HT rejects violence in general and has specifically denied any involvement in the terror attacks in Uzbekistan, but the organization's incendiary rhetoric and stated aim of restoring the caliphate in Central Asia has led many to question its commitment to nonviolence.

Membership in HT apparently led Yusupov to become involved with a Jamoat, an Arabic word that in Uzbek denotes a community or group. Jamoat members discussed events in Chechnya and Palestine, explaining to Yusupov the necessity of hijra and jihad. "Hijra," an Arabic word meaning "flight" or "exile" usually used in reference to the Prophet Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina in 622, is here used in the sense given the word by 20th-century Islamist movements -- a withdrawal from infidel society into an alternative community of true believers. "Jihad" refers to armed struggle against manifestations of unbelief.

The terms are closely associated with two Egyptian groups that split off from the Muslim Brotherhood. Shukri Mustafa founded Jama'at Takfir wa-l-Hijrah upon his release from an Egyptian prison in 1971. The word "takfir" refers to the action of pronouncing a Muslim an apostate for gross breaches of Islamic law; traditionally, Islamic jurists have taken great care with the concept of takfir, for the apostate's life is forfeit, making the careless application of takfir a potential cause of strife and bloodshed within the Muslim community . "Jama'at" is the Arabic word that made its way into Uzbek as Jamoat. The group's title can be roughly translated as "the group for pronouncing sinning Muslims apostates and withdrawing from infidel society." Jama'at al-Jihad was another offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood; it is best-known for assassinating Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Though there were ideological differences between them, both groups belonged to the broader "salafi" movement, which sees the first generations of Muslims under the Prophet Muhammad and the four "rightly guided" caliphs (632-661) -- collectively, "al-salaf al-salih," or "righteous forbears" -- as the only true Muslim community. The salafi movement views today's nominally Muslim countries as having returned to a state of "jahiliyyah," or pre-Islamic ignorance. Infidel rulers -- referred to as "tawaghit," or those who set themselves up as idols -- hold sway. Only jihad, understood primarily as armed struggle, can save the Muslim community, restore the caliphate and the primacy of Islamic law, and ensure the ultimate triumph of the truth.

Thus, the seemingly simple statement in Yusupov's testimony that the Jamoat urged the necessity of hijra and jihad carries with it much larger connotations. It references not only the groups Jama'at al-Takfir wa-l-Hijrah and Jama'at al-Jihad, but the salafi movement in general. And lurking on the margins of the statement are the best-known and most active proponents of the salafi agenda -- Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

Once Yusupov had joined the Jamoat and become an adherent of salafi ideology, he testified that he underwent military training at a camp in Pakistan. Pakistan, of course, is where several reports have placed remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Deutsche Welle reported on 1 March that some members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan after the U.S.-led military operation removed the Taliban regime, and that several IMU leaders were resident in Wana, Pakistan, in spring 2004.

Fresh from his training in weapons and explosives manufacturing, Yusupov became the right-hand man of the Jamoat's "emir," Ahmad Bekmirzaev. Yusupov also involved three of his brothers in the Jamoat's activities. Immediately before the violence in Tashkent and Bukhara, Yusupov delivered 60 explosive belts and weapons to places indicated by Bekmirzaev.

Yusupov closed his testimony with an admission of guilt and a plea for forgiveness, Uzbek television reported. He said: "I ask you to forgive me. God willing, regardless of what term of imprisonment I will be sentenced to, and what punishment you will administer, I am admitting my guilt and I ask you to forgive us." The testimony of other defendants closely paralleled Yusupov's description of deepening involvement in a group -- Jamoat -- with somewhat murky organizational and ideological links to the worldwide salafi movement, then a concrete role in the springtime violence, and finally a recantation of radicalism and request for clemency.

Allison Gill, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Tashkent, turned a critical eye to the trial in an extended interview with the BBC's Uzbek Service on 25 August, the day after the court handed down sentences. Gill, who observed virtually the entire trial from inside the courtroom, told the BBC: "The court's final verdict did not meet the standards for a fair trial. First, proof of guilt was based solely on the defendants' confessions. Second, neither the prosecutor nor the defense lawyers asked about the conditions under which the confessions were obtained." Gill stressed the importance of the latter point, noting that confessions obtained under duress are inadmissible under international legal standards, and that the Uzbek authorities' history of employing torture to extract confessions renders the question especially pressing.

Uzbek officials had promised an open trial, and during the proceedings they repeatedly called attention to the presence of journalists and international human rights defenders such as Allison Gill. But Gill told the BBC that the defendants' relatives were not allowed into the courtroom, which she termed "a gross violation of the laws of a fair trial." She also said that some of the defendants' relatives she spoke with said that the defendants were mistreated in detention, but that they did not know enough about the conditions of internment to say whether or not they had been tortured.

Gill made it clear in the interview that she maintained a neutral position on the defendants' guilt or innocence, remarking only that the nature of the trial left the question open. She asserted: "What I assert is that the trial failed to meet the standards of a fair trial. As a result, the verdict cannot resolve the question of whether the defendants are guilty or innocent."

Gill's criticisms are apropos, yet analysts seeking to gain a better understanding of the violence that has twice reared its head in Uzbekistan in 2004 must still confront the trial's central issue: Who was responsible? While we lack sufficient material for a definite answer, a brief review of the events suggests that a tentative explanation is possible.

The springtime violence bore all the earmarks of an elaborate plot gone badly awry. The mayhem began with an explosion on 28 March at a jerry-rigged bomb-making facility in a private residence outside Bukhara. Approximately 10 people perished. Soon after, police patrols in Tashkent clashed with several individuals during document checks. The attackers killed three policemen, in some cases stealing their weapons. On the morning of 29 March, a female suicide bomber targeted an early-morning gathering of policemen at Tashkent's Chorsu market, killing herself and a number of policemen. Multiple shoot-outs with police on 30 March left 20 assailants dead, some of whom apparently blew themselves up to avoid capture. The violence petered out on 31 March and 1 April with two bombings; one bomber killed himself, the other killed a nearby relative. According to the official death toll, 33 alleged militants died, 10 policemen, and four civilian bystanders.

The preceding is based on numerous journalistic reports and Uzbek official statements. While they contradict each other on some details, the general picture is fairly clear. Moreover, in the absence of a credible claim of responsibility or independent statement from the attackers themselves, this picture is all we have. It suggests that a relatively large group of militants had planned, or were planning, a series of violent attacks. When the bomb factory outside Bukhara detonated, some surviving plotters sprang into action willy-nilly. When they had their choice of target, they appear to have targeted the police. We know little of their motives, but when the Institute for War and Peace Reporting profiled two of the female suicide bombers, they showed a strong similarity to many of the Palestinian suicide bombers described by Nasra Hassan in a 2001 "New Yorker" article titled "An Arsenal of Believers" -- educated, middle-class, and deeply religious. Other individuals involved in the Uzbek attacks appear to have had links, whether through personal commitment or family ties, to the murky world of Uzbekistan's Islamist opposition.

Thus, it seems eminently possible that the violence was the work of a militant Islamist group possibly tied to radical organizations with a past history of activity in the region, although we can only speculate on the nature and extent of those links. Uzbek officials have on numerous occasions articulated an interpretation along these general lines, albeit with a heavy emphasis on the likely influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideology and insinuations of ties to Al-Qaeda.

While the testimony that formed the core of the terror trial in Uzbekistan fits in with this basic interpretation of events, it leaves several extremely important questions unanswered. For example, does Hizb ut-Tahrir, with its radical agenda and avowed commitment to nonviolence, serve as a stepping stone to more active forms of militancy? What is the real extent of ties between the perpetrators of recent violence in Uzbekistan and the "jihad international" that has taken shape within the ideological framework cobbled together by supporters of Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? Or is the violence better viewed as an inchoate protest and expression of extreme despair at political restrictions and economic malaise? These are crucial questions with far-reaching ramifications for the situation in Uzbekistan and the broader expanse of Central Asia.

The Tashkent trial could have helped to answer these questions. Yet, as Allison Gill points out, the trial's excessive reliance on testimony that may have been obtained under duress represents a missed opportunity. Moreover, the trial's shortcomings raise new questions: If the interpretation described above is correct, why did the Uzbek authorities opt for judicial proceedings with all the earmarks of a show trial, when fewer abject confessions and more hard evidence would have only bolstered their case? Official Tashkent may have rendered its verdict on terror in Uzbekistan, but for many outside observers, the jury is still out.