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Central Asia Report: February 27, 2003

27 February 2003, Volume 3, Number 9

THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev did it. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov did it. So did Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Why shouldn't Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov?

Nazarbaev, Niyazov, and Karimov have all extended their terms in power beyond constitutional norms in various ways. All three of them staged referendums that were deemed neither free nor fair by international observers in the mid-1990s to give themselves an extra five years in office. Karimov added a further two years to his presidency with another referendum in January 2003. Meanwhile, Nazarbaev pushed through a new constitution in 1998 that abolished the two-term limit for the presidency, leaving him free to run again in 2006. Niyazov had himself elected president-for-life by the Turkmen People's Council in 1999.

A referendum was also held in Tajikistan in 1999 which extended the president's term from five to seven years, but it simultaneously introduced a one-term limit instead of the previous two. Now the lower chamber of the Tajik parliament (the Mazhlisi Namoyandagon, or Assembly of Representatives) has paved the way for a referendum in the second half of June that could extend Rakhmonov's time in office still further when his present term expires in 2006 (see "Tajikistan: Referendum Could Extend President's Term,", 25 February 2003). Rakhmonov, who was first elected president in 1994 during the civil war, is presently serving his fourth year of a first term under the new constitutional provisions passed in 1999.

A group of parliamentary deputies in the Tajik capital Dushanbe suggested an initiative on 17 February that calls for changes to the country's constitution including the right of the head of state to seek a second term. Arguments in favor of the proposed changes were set out on 24 February by Shavkat Ismoilov, chairman of the lower chamber's Committee on Law, Security, and Defense, Asia-Plus reported. The constitutional amendments adopted in 1999 "were dictated by the times and the need to achieve accord in a society in postwar conditions," he told his fellow deputies. But now, he alleged, the situation has changed. For example, religious-based parties, "which we considered alien and even intolerable in 1999," have proven to be reliable and constructive. Consequently, constitutional language prejudicial against them should be altered, he said. Furthermore, the stipulation that the state provide free health care, for all, Ismoilov said, was unrealistic and should make way for more limited definitions of who should enjoy that privilege. Similarly, the state could no longer afford to provide free education except at the secondary level. "This is a reality and should be embodied in the constitution," according to Ismoilov. Other amendments should give more independence to the courts, strengthen human rights, and streamline the functioning of the legislature. As for the all-important Article 63, which defines presidential term limits, Ismoilov blandly indicated that there had been suggestions to alter it and it seemed a good idea.

The lower house agreed to put these questions to the people in a referendum in the second half of June and to establish a commission charged with collecting suggested constitutional amendments for submission to a joint session of parliament within three weeks. The joint session will consider and vote on holding the referendum, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 February. It was unclear whether the constitutional commission mandated by the deputies was in fact that same as a constitutional commission ordered by Rakhmonov and described by Iranian Radio on 26 February. The president's commission will consist of 14-members including his own representative, parliamentarians, and officials from the Prosecutor's Office, the radio said.

The radio added that the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Abdullo Nuri, spoke out against the idea of tinkering with the constitution a mere three years after it was overhauled. Nuri indicated that the political and social balances in the country could easily be disrupted, and that nobody should be thinking of amending the basic law of Tajikistan again for at least 10 years. Dushanbe-based officials from the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also advised caution, saying that amendments should only be accepted after a free and open discussion across the political spectrum.

The new buzz in Tajikistan about a referendum, presidential and parliamentary committees, and amending the constitution in order to better reflect objective reality in the country, might set off warning bells for anyone who followed the referendum on changing the constitution in Kyrgyzstan earlier this month. That process, critics contend, provided an object lesson on the use and abuse of referendums by sitting presidents determined to increase their influence and crush their opponents. Although they did not overtly extend President Askar Akaev's term in office, the amendments that were endorsed are expected to enhance his powers at the legislature's and judiciary's expense and may conceivably open the door to him running for office again in 2005. Rakhmonov must have been impressed. Having observed the advantages that his fellow presidents in Central Asia have extracted from referendums, he appears set to pay them one of the highest compliments that pragmatic men of affairs can pay one another: imitation.

DEATH PENALTIES HANDED OUT FOR ISLAMIC REBELS IN TAJIKISTAN� For several weeks, the military board of Tajikistan's Supreme Court in Dushanbe has sat in judgment over 82 accused members of rebel groups once led by renegade Islamic opposition field commanders Rahmon (a.k.a "Hitler") Sanginov and Mansur Muakkalov. The hearings ended on 25 February and resulted in 11 death sentences, Asia-Plus and ITAR-TASS reported.

The Tajik Interior Ministry and army launched a series of antiterrorist strikes codenamed "Operation Lightning" against antigovernment fighters led by Sanginov and Muakkalov in summer 2001. These were men who had belonged to the United Tajik Opposition during the five-year civil war, but then refused to abide by the 1997 peace agreement and turned to crime, according to Tajik authorities. Government troops managed to kill both leaders in July and August 2001 and destroy their armed formations. At the time, Tajik officials announced that 94 rebels had been captured and charged with murder, hostage-taking, and dealing in narcotics and weapons (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 24 August 2001).

The court in Dushanbe began handing down sentences on 24 February. Altogether, the group of defendants are alleged to have committed 400 crimes, including 270 murders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 February 2003). On 24 February two men, Amrullo Rasulov and Abdurakhim Kholov, were condemned to death for crimes committed between 1998 and 2001 in Lenin and Kofarnihon raions near Dushanbe. Rasulov was specifically charged with murdering, with accomplices, 13 members of a single family in a village outside the capital, and kidnapping a man and two children who were released after the payment of a $31,000 ransom, Asia-Plus said. A third defendant, Khabibullo, was similarly accused of membership in a terrorist organization, murder, kidnapping, robbery, assault, and illegal possession of arms, and received a 23-year jail term. A fourth defendant, Zohir Gafurov, was sentenced to only 16 years in prison on account of the fact that he was a minor.

A further nine militants were condemned to death by firing squad on 25 February, ITAR-TASS reported. One defendant was freed for health reasons. All the rest of them were found guilty on a variety of charges: their guilt was fully proved and none of the defendants was innocent, according to the court's chief military judge, Vaysiddin Fathuddinov. Ten were sent to jail for 25 years. The remainder were handed prison sentences ranging from 18 months to 23 years. It appears that one of the original charges made against the rebels in 2001, that they dealt in narcotics, was quietly dropped. To judge by available reports, the defendants were not accused of drug-running.

Tajikistan has come under international pressure in recent years to abolish the death penalty. Tajikistan's senior presidential adviser on legal matters, Rahmatillo Zoitov, told Asia-Plus on 20 February that among the 272 proposed revisions of the Criminal Code that are now being studied is the abolition of the death penalty for women (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). Two new articles intended to strengthen the fight against drug trafficking have also been proposed.

...WHILE RIGHTS ORGANIZATION SEEKS TO COOL KAZAKHS' ARDOR FOR EXECUTIONS. Kazakhstan has also felt international pressure to impose a strict moratorium on executions or to abolish the death penalty outright. Either is a requirement to obtain observer states at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is something that Kazakhstan has applied for (see "Kazakhstan: Astana In Midst Of Lively Public Debate On Merits Of Death Penalty,", 27 January 2003). As early as March 2002, Kazakh President Nazarbaev mentioned the possibility that the country could consider imposing a moratorium on capital punishment with a view toward abolishing it altogether at a later time.

Meanwhile, courts in Kazakhstan, which sentenced 18 people to death in 2002, have handed down two death sentences in the course of a single week. On 21 February the Kustanai Regional Court sentenced a 30-year-old Azerbaijani national, Eldar Allakhverdiev, to death after declaring him guilty of murdering five people, including two pensioners whose money and property he stole, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. On the following day, the newspaper "Ekspress-K" reported that the Almaty city court had handed out capital punishment to one Igor Grekhov who, egged on by his mistress, murdered four of their mutual acquaintances during various drinking bouts in 2001.

The Kazakhstan Today news agency reported on 24 February that the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was preparing courses and seminars in Kazakhstan to train local activists and journalists how to conduct a national propaganda campaign against capital punishment. A pilot course was going to be conducted in the former capital Almaty between 25-28 February, the agency said. Courses would discuss the strategy and techniques of a persuasive campaign, including how to build alliances between civil society and the media. According to data for 2002 from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 74 countries have abolished capital punishment and 22 have imposed a moratorium. Eighty-four countries are reported to support the death penalty.

UZBEK ARRESTS STIR FEARS OF FRESH ASSAULT ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. Uzbekistan's poor democratization and human rights record was in the spotlight again last week as three local newspapermen were arrested in rapid succession. Meanwhile, a prominent activist from the opposition Erk party, Atonazar Arifov, accused the authorities of effectively trying to gag him by preventing him from traveling abroad. Coming on the heels of the International Crisis Group (ICG)'s criticism of Uzbekistan's feints, dodges, and pretenses at political liberalization (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 February 2003), last week's arrests were ill-timed as far as the government's image was concerned. They reinforced the message of the ICG report in the minds of many observers and served as grist for the mills of numerous international watchdog groups.

On 18 February, Uzbekistan's Supreme Court handed down a seven-year prison sentence to a 24-year-old journalist, Gairat Mekhliboev, Interfax reported. Mekhliboev had published several newspaper articles on the state's attitude toward Islam which, although they were guarded, could be construed as critical of the government. He was convicted on charges of inciting religious intolerance, attempting to undermine the constitutional system, and organizing public disturbances. He had been arrested in July 2002 at Chorsu bazaar in the Uzbek capital Tashkent for supposedly participating in an antigovernment protest staged by Muslim women whose male relatives had been jailed for religious extremism as alleged members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, AP said. Mekhliboev maintained his innocence throughout the trial, which began on 5 February. The police said they had found illegal radical religious literature in his hostel room. He maintained they had planted it. He admitted he had attended a few meetings with members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but he said he did not support their views and regretted his brief involvement with the group. His brother Shavkat said police had beaten and tortured the defendant into confessing a connection with Islamic radicals, AP reported.

Noting a pattern of imprisoning journalists in Uzbekistan on the pretext of religious extremism, the IFJ said the fact that one of Mekhliboev's articles was presented as evidence in the case showed he was being targeted for his activities as a journalist, not just for his allegedly radical religious convictions. (Meanwhile, Supreme Court representatives denied to Interfax that Mekhliboev had been arrested for his newspaper work.) Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression (CJFE) also issued a protest letter to Uzbek authorities. The former president of the now disbanded Union of Independent Journalists of Uzbekistan, Ruslan Sharipov, told AP that Mekhliboev's trial was intended to send a warning specifically to younger journalists not to step out of bounds.

On 20 February, police arrested Tokhtomurad Toshev, editor in chief of the newspaper "Adolat" (Justice), in his office in Tashkent on unknown charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2003). On being detained, Toshev requested a lawyer and was refused, AP said on 21 February. The paper he has edited since 1995, which has a circulation of 3,000, is the organ of the Social-Democratic Party, a state-approved party regarded as loyal to the government. Consequently, many observers (including, by all reports, Toshev's astonished colleagues) surmised that his arrest was not connected to anything controversial published in the newspaper that had aroused the government's ire. There was some speculation that Toshev's arrest was due to his support for a businessman who had filed a complaint of alleged maltreatment by law enforcement agencies. Others said he may have been involved in corruption or embezzlement.

The reasons for detaining Ergash Bobojonov, a 61-year-old Uzbek journalist, seem more clear cut. Bobojonov is an active member of the opposition movement Birlik (Unity). According to a human rights activist in the town of Fergana, Abdusalom Ergashev, police entered Bobojonov's house in the eastern Fergana region last week without a warrant and arrested him, RFE/RL reported on 22 February. He is charged with libel and disclosure of state secrets after publishing articles in the Kyrgyz newspaper "Respublika" in 1999 and 2001 in which he alleged corruption in high places. He also faces charges of issuing murder threats which, according to rights activist Ergashev, are linked to a 1994 incident where Bobojonov supposedly threatened to run over someone with a car. New York-based Human Rights Watch said on 26 February that his arrest signaled a renewed crackdown on dissent in Uzbekistan, and it urged his immediate release, citing concerns about his health. He is reportedly suffering from convulsions and having difficulty speaking since being taken into custody.

Atonazar Arifov, who has headed the opposition Erk (Freedom) Party in Uzbekistan since its leader, Muhammad Solih, was forced into exile in the early 1990s, said on 25 February that the authorities were forbidding him to travel abroad, RFE/RL and AP reported. Police officials turned down his request for an exit visa, he said, because his name was on a list of "unreliable citizens" drawn up by the Interior Ministry's department for fighting organized crime and terrorism. Uzbek exit visas must be renewed every two years; Arifov was granted an exit visa twice before. He attributed the decision not to give him one now to a decaying social, economic, and political situation in Uzbekistan. "The situation is so critical that the authorities can no longer hide that. They are resorting to their usual methods and trying to make up some enemies to blame for all problems," said Arifov as quoted by AP on 25 February. Although Erk is not an officially registered political party and cannot participate in elections, its existence is currently tolerated as long as it does not openly oppose the regime.