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Central Asia Report: July 18, 2002

18 July 2002, Volume 2, Number 27

BACK-TO-BACK TRIALS OF KAZAKH PRESIDENT'S FOES, AS ABLIYAZOV'S ENDS... In the Kazakh capital Astana, the Supreme Court adjourned on 16 July to consider its verdict in the case against former Energy, Industry, and Trade Minister Mukhtar Abliyazov, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. The trial began on 24 June, and a verdict is expected on 18 July. Abliyazov, who was one of the founding members in November of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, is accused of abusing his official position and embezzling some $4 million from the national power-grid company KEGOC, while damaging the national economy by illegally writing off the company's debts. He is also accused of making $2,888 worth of personal calls on a KEGOC cell phone (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 June 2002).

On 12 July, the principal state prosecutor, claiming that all the accusations against Abliyazov had been proved, demanded a sentence of seven years in prison along with confiscation of his property and a punitive fine of more than 500 million tenge ($3.26 million) to be paid to the state treasury, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. The prosecutor also dismissed Abliyazov's claims that the charges against him were politically motivated as "groundless" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 July 2002). The former minister's defenders have drawn a connection between his arrest and his political activities, including the fact that he was arrested in March shortly after media outlets close to him accused President Nursultan Nazarbaev of having stashed billions of dollars of public money in Swiss bank accounts under his own name. Meanwhile, police have emphasized that criminal proceedings were instigated against Abliyazov in October 1999, long before he joined the opposition.

In his closing statement on 16 July, Abliyazov portrayed himself as a patriot and democrat who had labored through the 1990s to improve Kazakhstan's political and economic situation, and, in a martyr-like flourish, declared himself ready to pay the highest price for the sake of freedom in his country, according the RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. Meanwhile, he accused the president of being an obstacle to political development. "Nazarbaev's regime has been hindering real democratic reforms in the country, trying to concentrate more power in its own hands," he said.

...AND ZHAQIYANOV'S BEGINS. Western and Russian news agencies reported that the trial of Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov opened on 15 July in Pavlodar, the northern Kazakh city where he used to serve as governor until being dismissed by President Nazarbaev in November shortly after co-founding the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK). Zhaqiyanov is accused of financial crimes and abusing his position as governor by privatizing various enterprises at artificially low prices, including the Peschanskii engineering-repair plant, the Tort-Quduq gold mine, and the Romat medicine factory, RFE/RL's Kazak bureau reported on 16 June. Prosecutors demanded a 10-year prison sentence and the confiscation of the defendant's property. Meanwhile, Zhaqiyanov denied any wrongdoing and retorted that the privatizations he oversaw were directly mandated by Nazarbaev himself, Reuters added.

Although the trial has been declared open, it has been assigned to a cramped courtroom with room for barely 30 spectators, apparently in an attempt to limit the amount of outside interest in the case, RFE/RL reported on 16 July. Furthermore, no audio or video recordings are being permitted in the courtroom. A request by Zhaqiyanov's lawyer that the trial be moved to a larger space was denied by Judge Igor Tarasenko, RFE/RL said.

Zhaqiyanov resolutely maintained that both his trial and the trial of DVK co-founder Abliyazov were politically motivated. "We dared to tell the truth, [to] draw Nazarbaev's attention to lawless acts committed by his entourage and family," said Zhaqiyanov as quoted by AP on 15 July. "The criminal case against me was fabricated to punish me as a dissenter."

TAJIKISTAN FACING EXTREMISM AT HOME... The dangers of Islamic radicalism, both indigenous and emanating from Afghanistan, was theme of the week in Tajikistan. While top officials complained that homegrown extremism was still a force to be reckoned with, Afghan militants struck across the border and kidnapped a Tajik border guard and three civilians for ransom.

President Imomali Rakhmonov adumbrated public criticisms to come when he visited the Isfara district in Sughd Oblast in northern Tajikistan on 9 July. He lashed out at local officials for failing to take action to curb the activities of militant Islamic groups, Asia Plus-Blitz and AP reported. He further expressed worry that Tajikistan's international reputation had suffered after U.S. forces in Afghanistan captured three residents of Sughd who fought alongside the Taliban. They are currently being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 July 2002).

Rakhmonov's experience of the Isfara district was clearly fresh in his mind four days later when he addressed a congress of the National Unity and Revival Movement, of which he is chairman, in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. He described how 192 mosques had recently been built in the Isfara district to serve a population of 200,000, in defiance of a government decree permitting only one mosque per 15,000 citizens, AP reported on 13 July. This decree was being flouted throughout Tajikistan, Rakhmonov said. At the same time, he lambasted the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan for engaging in "ideological work of an extremist persuasion that may lead to a schism in society." He added that the fundamentalist Islamist message being preached in Tajikistan's multiplying mosques "could lead to a religious split and differences and may destabilize the situation in the country," AP said.

Sughd Oblast was fingered again as a hotbed of radicalism on 16 July when the chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, Said Akhmedov, claimed the majority of activists of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party were based in the area, Asia Plus-Blitz and ReliefWeb reported. Moreover, Akhmedov said that most of those activists were ethnic Uzbeks who had kinfolk in the Ferghana Valley region of Uzbekistan and were influenced by the religious propaganda that circulates there. He acknowledged, however, that some underground cells were active in Dushanbe and elsewhere, circulating leaflets calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate on the territory of Central Asia. But he said that Tajik police and security forces have notched up recent successes in their efforts to prevent Hizb ut-Tahrir activists from spreading their propaganda, although he admitted that his department did not have the capacity to monitor all the numerous Tajik students who are currently studying Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 16 2002).

...AND ON ITS BORDERS. Nervous about possible incursions into Tajikistan by groups of Al-Qaeda fighters who were spotted in Afghanistan some 100 kilometers from the frontier, Russian and Tajik contingents responsible for Tajikistan's border security were being doubled, Reuters reported on 12 July. Chief of staff of the Russian border guards, Major General Sergei Zhilkin, suggested that the Al-Qaeda bands were hoping to hide in Tajikistan because they "have nowhere else to go," AP added the same day. A more violent picture of the terrorists' plans was limned by a member of the Tajik Academy of Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, who said that the Taliban were still armed, disciplined, and dangerous, and could destabilize Central Asia with a protracted series of unpredictable attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 July 2002). Violence promptly erupted, as six armed Afghan militants sneaked across the Pyandzh River on 16 July, seized a Tajik border guard and three local men near the southern Tajik city of Shurabad, and subsequently demanded a ransom of $80,000 to release them, ITAR-TASS and AP reported. A Tajik Interior Ministry official said the Afghans might have been drug smugglers, Reuters noted on 16 July. (Two days earlier, Russian border guards confiscated six sacks containing 214 kilograms of heroin, the largest single batch of the drug confiscated this year, following a shoot-out with 10 drug traffickers along the Pyandzh River south of Dushanbe, AP said on 14 July.)

TURKMEN MARK RECORD HARVEST WITH HOLIDAYS AND PRIZES. Celebrating what it called the richest harvest of golden-eared wheat ever produced in the country, Turkmen TV reported on 11 July that President Saparmurat Niyazov had told his ministers, deputy ministers, governors, and other top officials that they could all take a 10-day vacation until 24 July. Niyazov asserted that a bumper crop of more than 2.3 million tons of grain had been harvested -- enough to feed the country for the next 18 months, as long as administrators at the state grain-products company did not embezzle it, he told the television station. He went so far as to suggest that Turkmenistan might become a grain exporter, according to the newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" on 12 July.

By way of reward, Niyazov told his officials that they were allowed to "combine work and vacations. They can go to the Caspian Sea and other places in Turkmenistan," Interfax reported on 12 July. But they had to be back in time to commence active preparations for the annual joint session of the People's Council and the Council of Elders to be held in eastern Turkmenistan on 8-9 August, Niyazov said. Meanwhile, farmers who harvested 40 tons per hectare or more could look forward to receiving prizes on the national Harvest Holiday on 21 July, Interfax said.

In February, when former Prime Minister Hudaiberdi Orazov defected to the anti-Niyazov opposition in exile, he accused the regime of routinely lying about agricultural statistics and production figures. Orazov said that Turkmenistan's economy was in a "state of total collapse" but that the authorities disguised that fact by "manipulating statistical data" (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 21 February 2002).