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Central Asia Report: February 14, 2003

14 February 2003, Volume 3, Number 7

A KYRGYZ GUIDE TO PUSHING TAJIKS' BUTTONS: MENTION ISLAMIC MILITANTS. Last week, a senior Kyrgyz Defense Ministry official suggested that members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) might be encamped in Tajikistan and cooperating with international terrorist organizations across the border in Afghanistan. The brouhaha that erupted required fast backpedaling from the Kyrgyz side. It also served as a reminder that Tajikistan -- having acquired the reputation of being a hotbed or at least stronghold of Islamic militancy during the 1992-97 civil war -- remains extremely sensitive about the possibility of resurgent Islamism on its territory.

On 4 February, Interfax quoted Colonel Malik Jumagulov, chief of the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry's Department of Administration, as telling journalists that militant bands consisting of Uzbek and Tajik fighters were operating along the Tajik-Afghan border. Although small and poorly organized, they were capable of destabilizing the whole Central Asian region, Jumagulov said, especially as they were linking up across frontiers with larger Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan that had allegedly been identified by Kyrgyz intelligence. Jumagulov specifically referred to information that approximately 300 militants were based in Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province near the Afghan-Tajik border and that another group of equal size was supposedly based along the Afghan-Iranian border. His most eye-catching claim was that Tohir Yuldoshev, presumed leader of the IMU since Juma Namangani was reported killed in late 2001 in northern Afghanistan by the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition, was rebuilding his forces there and had assembled 800 armed militants that included members of Al-Qaeda, as well as Chechen and Uighur separatists (see "Tajikistan: Islamic Opposition Says Terrorists Have No Support In The Country,", 7 February 2003).

As Tajik protests mounted, damage control in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek was assigned to Mirbek Koylubaev, a Defense Ministry spokesman. On 6 February, he rejected wholesale the Interfax report of the news conference, maintaining that Jumagulov had limited his remarks on 4 February to cooperation between the Kyrgyz and Tajik Defense ministries and denying that Jumagulov had mentioned the possibility that "terrorists" were operating from the territory of a neighboring country, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. He added that he and Jumagulov had visited Tajikistan several times and saw no signs of any IMU presence there. The elaborate denial was reminiscent of a similar incident last summer when Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov got himself into hot water by reportedly commenting that Namangani might be alive and could be leading gunmen from Afghanistan to safe havens in Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 July and 2 August 2002).

In fact, there was nothing particularly revelatory or shocking about Jumagulov's remarks on 4 February, since most of the information he presented, whether factual or speculative, had been mooted before. Where he seems to have crossed the line was his contention that these Islamic militants, who allegedly double as drug smugglers to help finance Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, enjoyed support among the population of Tajikistan. Here, he pushed the hot buttons of Tajikistan's government and Islamic opposition alike.

The position of the government, anxious to portray the country as stable and harmonious, is that terrorist groups have established no bases and enjoy no support in Tajikistan. Mirzovatan Hasanaliev, deputy chief of the Tajik Security Council, acknowledged last week to RFE/RL that scattered remnants of forces disbanded by the U.S. army might be hiding in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. "But they are not based near the Tajik border or inside Tajikistan," he said. Similarly, Tajik State Border Guard Committee chief Nuralisho Nazarov stated on 8 February that the Afghan government "fully controls" its territory adjacent to the frontier with Tajikistan and that there were no Al-Qaeda or IMU militants in the regions in those border areas. He added that Tajik and Russian border guards were closely monitoring the border situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2003).

The Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Central Asia's only legally registered Muslim political movement, is equally adamant that Islamic radicalism is dead in Tajikistan because of the threat it poses to the party's legitimacy and its power-sharing agreement with the government. Its leaders know that if Islamism is shown to be alive in the country, they will be first to be blamed for reviving it. In the wake of Jumagulov's imputations last week, the IRPT deputy chairman Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda did concede that there were former members of Tajikistan's Islamic opposition who never recognized the 1997 peace and reconciliation accord that ended the civil war and that these men might be in Afghanistan now. But he stressed that they received no support from the IRPT. "They should not be linked to our Islamic opposition anymore. It's not right," he said, adding, "I don't have any information regarding their involvement in drug trafficking or other similar activities" (see "Tajikistan: Islamic Opposition Says Terrorists Have No Support In The Country,", 7 February 2003).

For the sake of political viability, the IRPT has been working to purge itself (or appear to purge itself) of connections with radical Islamic groups. It nevertheless has been feeling the heat from President Imomali Rakhmonov's regime, which, according to some analysts, began maneuvering last summer against Muslim clerics in northern Isfara Raion in Sughd Oblast as a prelude to initiating a full-scale, Uzbek-style clampdown on the Islamic opposition (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July and 8 August 2002). Other observers detect a move to position the IRPT as a moderate Islamic party seeking power through the ballot box along the lines of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which swept national elections in November. The argument in favor of recasting the IRPT in this fashion was set out in the newspaper "Vechernii Dushanbe" on 17 January by the former spokesman of the United Tajik Opposition, Sulton Hamadov. In an article titled "Political Islam Today: To The Pinnacle Of Power Through The Parliament: Is This Good Or Bad?", Hamadov answered his own question as "good" as long as the international community respected the result. He noted that the United States, now that the strategic imperative was to secure a military foothold in region, tended to turn a blind eye to the way some Central Asian regimes were ruthlessly exploiting the terrorist alarm to suppress their opponents. But any attempt by Rakhmonov to move against the IRPT under such pretences would be illegitimate and unjustifiable, Hamadov implied: "Like other political parties in the country, it condemns terrorist acts being launched by international criminal groups and wants to come to power by parliamentary means."

IMF MARKS ECONOMIC PROGRESS IN TAJIKISTAN, DISPENSES ADVICE. A delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) wrapped up a 10-day assessment mission to Tajikistan on 7 February with a parting message that it was broadly satisfied with the pace of market liberalization in the country. "We came to the conclusion that progress in the field of economic reform has been good," delegation head Robert Christiansen told a press conference in the capital Dushanbe at the end of the visit, AP reported.

Now come the caveats. Despite Christiansen's encouraging words, Tajikistan is still socioeconomically battered and impoverished as a result of the five-year civil war that ended in 1997. While the IMF's overall mission is to promote macroeconomic stability, its work in Tajikistan largely falls under the rubric of poverty reduction, and the assistance that the IMF is planning to afford Dushanbe in terms of credits and loans or in the areas of monetary, tax, or budgetary policy is being extended within the framework of a Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF). Implementation of the IMF's new three-year program for Tajikistan within the framework of the PRGF was the main subject of discussions between Christiansen and President Rakhmonov on 7 February. Christiansen, noting there were still no accurate figures on the percentage of the population living below the poverty line, called on the government to improve the work of its statistics agencies. The government is currently formulating a letter to the IMF requesting technical assistance from foreign statistics experts to address this shortcoming, Asia-Plus reported on 8 February.

Christiansen reported the positive steps that Tajikistan had taken to reduce its crushing foreign debt, which stood at $1.16 billion, or 98 percent of gross domestic product, in 2001. Foreign debt has now sunk to $985 million, or 88 percent of GDP, while GDP itself grew at a rate of 9.1 percent during 2002, ITAR-TASS reported. At the same time, he noted that these gains were threatened by an annual inflation rate that has risen to 14-15 percent.

Christiansen communicated to journalists two pieces of business advice that the IMF has offered the government. First, the IMF has recommended that state gas enterprises raise the price of natural gas as a way of encouraging consumers to use it less wastefully -- a suggestion sure to provoke howls of outrage throughout the land -- although Christiansen did add the qualification that some kind of financial compensation must be arranged for the neediest members of society. He also pointed out that the country's gas-supply system was getting steadily worse and badly needed investment. Second, the IMF has reportedly advised the government not to proceed with plans to privatize either the country's main aluminum plant or its main energy company. This would be to sacrifice long-term prospects for a short-term windfall. The aluminum plant last year produced 307,600 tons of aluminum, almost all of which was exported, accounting for 54 percent of the country's total exports. The energy company exported $66.2 million worth of electricity last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2003).

Soon after the IMF delegation's arrival in Dushanbe, Russian Ambassador to Tajikistan Maksim Peshkov described what contributions Russia was making to Tajikistan's economic well-being on a bilateral basis, "Asia-Plus" newspaper reported on 30 January. He announced two projects on the drawing board that had promises of Russian investment: the reconstruction of the Roghun hydroelectric station in central Tajikistan, for which he said Russian investors had pledged at least $50 million, and the reconstruction of the Sangtuda hydroelectric station in the south of the country. Peshkov also noted that Tajikistan's $300 million debt to Russia had been restructured in an agreement signed in December according to which some debt was forgiven and the repayment period was extended to 2017.

UZBEK CRIME WATCH. On 7 February, an Uzbek appeals court upheld a landmark ruling against a Jehovah's Witness, AP and Reuters reported. Last November, in the first criminal proceeding against a Christian group in Uzbekistan, Marat Mudarisov, a 26-year-old road worker, was handed a three-year suspended sentence after he was found guilty of inciting religious hatred. The case against Madarisov was based on claims that at the time of his arrest he had in his possession a pamphlet titled "Truth, the Only Truth" that made an argument for the superiority of the Bible over the Koran. Defense attorneys maintained the pamphlet was planted on their client and that he was targeted only because he was a Jehovah's Witness (a rapidly growing sect in Uzbekistan, with reportedly more than 3,000 adherents). In any case, Madarisov's lawyers argued that the possession of a religious pamphlet should not be a crime. Canadian John Burns, a member of the defense team, was quoted by AP as telling the court that the case "went to the very foundation of Uzbekistan's claim to be a democracy," since the issue at stake was whether or not freedom of religious expression was protected in the country. After a panel of five judges upheld the guilty verdict, the defense promised to appeal again. Although President Islam Karimov's regime has already imprisoned an estimated 7,500 Muslims in a harsh campaign to stem religious extremism, Uzbekistan's first criminal prosecution of a Jehovah's Witness has rung alarm bells among international human rights advocates who fear that Madarisov's conviction will herald a crackdown on Christian groups as well.

Meanwhile, the International League for Human Rights (ILHR), a nongovernmental organization with consultative status at the United Nations, kept the pressure on Uzbekistan after a Tashkent court recently confirmed the death sentence handed down against 28-year-old Iskandar Hudayberganov, convicted in November 2002 of terrorism, anti-constitutional activity, and murder (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 6 February 2003). He was accused of being a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and found guilty despite ample evidence that he and five young men sentenced with him were tortured during pretrial detention and confessed to crimes under duress. In an open letter to Karimov dated 7 February, the ILHR strongly criticized the widespread use of torture by Uzbek law-enforcement officials in these and other cases. It noted that the UN special rapporteur on torture, Theo von Boven, after touring Uzbekistan's prisons late last year, found that torture was "systematic" in Uzbekistan. The ILHR called on Karimov to investigate the allegations of torture, to grant clemency to all six convicted men, to commute all other death sentences in the country, and to declare a moratorium on executions (as both Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have done).

According to a news bulletin in the 3-9 February edition of the "Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations CIS Weekly Review," a correspondent for the newspaper "O'zbekiston ovozi" ("Voice of Uzbekistan"), Lutfullo Mamsoliev, was arrested in Samarkand on 5 February and charged with "extortion." His colleagues dismissed the charges as politically motivated. They connected his arrest to an article he had written the previous week that criticized the governor of Samarkand Oblast, Shavkat Mirziyaev.