Accessibility links

Breaking News

(Un)Civil Societies: August 13, 2007

Authorities Impose Religious Tests On Imams

By Farangis Najibullah

Tajikistan's grand mufti, Amonullo Nematzoda in 2006

August 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of local imams in the mosques of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, have been ordered to take a special test of religious knowledge to prove their fitness for the job.

The office of the mayor, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, has said that any imam who fails the exam will lose his post.

The head of the religious-affairs department in the Dushanbe mayor's office, Shamsiddin Nuriddinov, told RFE/RL that mosque leaders who fail to pass the exam will be sacked and replaced with other clerics.

Nuriddinov says Tajikistan's Council of Clerics has set up a special commission that is expected to complete the tests by the end of August.

"The officials from the city government and Dushanbe districts might also take part in the exam, if the Council of Clerics requires them to do so," Nuriddinov says.

Public Impetus?

Dushanbe authorities cite complaints from city residents about their local imams' lack of religious knowledge and competence.

But some imams say the test is yet another way for the government of a staunchly traditional, and predominantly Muslim, society to pressure religious institutions.

There are some 300 mosques in Dushanbe. Most of the buildings are used as community centers for many types of social gatherings, as well as for prayers.

Habibkhon Azamkhonov is the imam of Dushanbe's Sari Osiyo mosque. He calls the whole idea of forcing imams to pass a test an insult to him and his fellow clerics.

"I can't accept it. I've been working as an imam for 30 years," Azamkhonov says. "People felt very uncomfortable about this decision. This was supposed to be a democratic [society], but pressures are increasing."

It is not the first time mosques have come under government scrutiny in Tajikistan. Authorities have closed several Dushanbe mosques in the last three years, after criticizing them for operating without registrations. At the same time, all imams in Dushanbe and other cities were told they were no longer allowed to use loudspeakers to call the faithful to prayer (azaan).

Community Centers

The term "mosque" is sometimes used loosely in Tajikistan, with communal venues acquiring the label. Some clerics, in turn, have sought to appropriate such places for their own preaching and prayer groups.

An unregistered "mosque" in Dushanbe's Sino district that was destroyed by authoritiesin late July (RFE/RL)

Last week, two mosques were destroyed in Dushanbe's Sino district for operating without a license.

Imams, whose "job description" includes leading people during the prayers, often gain broad influence among the locals -- particularly since so many people gather at mosques at least once a day.

Attendees frequently stay on after evening prayers to discuss religious and social issues with imams.

Azamkhonov says such discussions are the real target of the mayor's decision to impose the religious tests.

He says the government wants to replace some clerics with others who are regarded as more loyal, or with close ties, to the authorities.

Captive Audiences

Some imams who have ventured beyond religious or social issues during such conversations have come under government and other official scrutiny.

Nuriddin Qahhorov, a prominent imam in a Dushanbe suburb known as Vahdat, is widely regarded as a critic of the government, and he has come under pressure in the past month.

In May, the State Committee for National Security confiscated recordings of Qahhorov's conversations from stores. Committee officials said the imam's statements posed a threat to Tajikistan's stability.

Some Dushanbe residents say imams with sufficient religious knowledge have nothing to fear from the compulsory testing. But official involvement in nonstate affairs raises suspicion in a country like Tajikistan, where the perception is widespread of corruption and bribery in exchange for official sinecure.

But 32-year-old Abdullo Naimov is critical of officials, saying it is an attempt to "sell" posts. "In our society, people struggle a lot to get any position, because there are very few jobs for people to earn a decent income for themselves and their families," Naimov says.

It remains unclear what questions the Dushanbe imams will be asked in the tests, which have already been postponed twice since they were announced in late July.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov contributed to this report.)

China: Human-Rights Pressure Increases As Olympic Countdown Begins

By Breffni O'Rourke

China's official Olympic logo, to which protesters added "Free Tibet 2008"

August 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There is exactly one year to go before the start of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and international rights groups are marking the occasion with calls for the Chinese authorities to live up to their promises to improve human rights.

In the latest action, the Free Tibet Campaign held a spectacular demonstration on the Great Wall of China. Six activists abseiled from the top of the Great Wall, unfurling a giant 42-square-meter banner as they descended. The banner bore the message in Chinese and English: "One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 2008."

The demonstration on August 6 lasted two hours before Chinese authorities took away the banner and the activists. The whereabouts of the six -- comprising Americans, Canadians, and a Briton -- are not known.

China As 'Free, Modern, Open'

The organizers of the protest, the London-based group Students For A Free Tibet (SFT), said today that the Chinese government is exploiting the Olympics to gain acceptance as a world power.

"China is using every opportunity that the Olympics provides to promote itself as a modern, free, and open society, and when it does that of course, it diverts attention away from its brutal occupation of Tibet, which has been ongoing for about 60 years now," spokesman Matt Whitticase told RFE/RL from Hong Kong.

Whitticase said that by protesting at the Great Wall, which he called the most recognizable symbol of China's nationhood, SFT was sending a message that China's dream of international leadership cannot be realized while it continues its occupation of Tibet.

Whitticase recalled that the head of the Swiss-based International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, promised that the IOC would ensure China improved its rights record.

"The IOC famously promised us, when it gave China the games, that human-rights abuses would get less and less [frequent], but actually, since 2005, we have seen an increase in repression of Tibetan Buddhism," Whitticase said.

Press Crackdown Continues

Not only Tibet activists have noted the upsurge of rights abuses as China gears up for the Olympic Games.

London-based Amnesty International says in a report issued on August 6 that Beijing is violating pledges made in the Olympic bidding process by increasing surveillance of religious and political dissidents, jailing journalists, and closing publications dealing with social development.

In Paris, the press-rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling for pressure on Jacques Rogge. "It's time now to ask the IOC to do something, to itself call on the Chinese authorities to release about 100 journalists, Internet users, and cyberdissidents currently jailed in China," RSF spokesman Jean-Francois Juillard said.

Juillard cast doubt on China's sincerity in the first place in suggesting the situation would improve. "They said they would improve the situation, but in fact that's not true, because journalists are still detained, censorship is still going on, hundreds of websites are still blocked, so nothing has improved," he said.

The IOC was unavailable to answer questions as to whether Rogge would raise the issue of human rights with the Chinese government, nor whether the IOC shares the common perception that rights observance in China is actually deteriorating.

Russia: Seven Sentenced In Killing Of Antiracism Campaigner

By Claire Bigg

Timur Kacharava was stabbed to death in 2005

August 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The St. Petersburg City Court has sentenced seven teenagers to prison sentences of up to 12 years for murdering an antiracism campaigner.

Timur Kacharava, a 20-year-old antiracism activist, and his friend Maksim Zgibai were attacked outside a St. Petersburg bookstore in November 2005 by a group of teenagers.

Kacharava was stabbed to death and died on the scene. Zgibai survived the attack despite multiple knife wounds and severe brain damage.

Today, the St. Petersburg City Court sentenced seven teenagers to prison for the attack. The main defendant, who is now 14 years old, was sentenced to 12 years for murder and attempted murder.

The other defendants received prison sentences ranging from two to three years -- some of them suspended -- on charges of hooliganism and inciting ethnic hatred.

'Tough Response' Needed

For Aleksandr Brod, the president of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, the verdict is a step in the right direction.

"On the whole, it's a fair verdict," Brod says. "Judges are progressively awakening to the danger of growing fascist tendencies in Russia. In our view, a tough response from prosecutors and judges is one of the best ways to fight xenophobia and neofascism."

While critics say Putin's recent promise to crack down on extremism has allowed a crackdown on all forms of dissent, a number of rights activists argue that such public pledges may be encouraging judges to take tougher action against racist offenders.

'Organized, Group Murders'

Today's verdict has also met with criticism. Human-rights lawyer Olga Tseitlina, who represents the Kacharava family, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the crime's organizer remains unpunished.

"Only one defendant has been sentenced for murder. The organizer, the ideological mastermind of this crime, is still wanted by the police," Tseitlina says.

"This is part of a tendency. Why would the authorities want to show that organized, group murders exist here? It's easier to say that some teenager got it into his head to kill someone," she adds.

Human-rights campaigners have long accused the authorities of turning a blind eye to rising hate crimes by convicting assailants of hooliganism, a charge that carries lighter sentences.

Veteran human-rights activist Yuly Rybakov also regrets that the other six defendants got away with relatively lenient sentences.

"Once more we're dealing with a case where all the responsibility is shifted to one of the weakest participants selected from a group of obvious criminals," Rybakov says. "Organized groups and those who are behind them remain unpunished or are handed minor sentences."

Russia's Racist Crime Wave

Nonetheless, rights activists hope the verdict will deter further attacks and help curb the surge in racially motivated violence across Russia.

According to Sova, a Russian organization that monitors hate crimes, 37 people have been killed so far this year in racist attacks -- 22 percent more than for the same period last year.

The mounting racist violence is causing deep concern among ethnic minorities in Russia.

The Russian Council of Muftis last week issued a statement calling on Russian authorities to do more to combat racism.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, the council's head, Ravil Gainutdin, said ethnic minorities in Russia are living in fear.

He was speaking after meeting with the mother of Damir Zainullin, a Tatar student who was killed in a racist attack in St. Petersburg in June.

Kyrgyzstan: Women Activists Report Increasing Harassment

By Janyl Chytyrbaeva

Well-known NGO leader and rights activist Cholpon Jakupova (file photo)

August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan is known for having a strong civil society, but in recent months many observers have warned that the human-rights situation in the country has deteriorated.

Civil society leaders are now calling on the Kyrgyz government to halt persecution of human-rights activists.

Awareness Campaign

Leading human-rights organizations in Kyrgyzstan have collected some 100,000 signatures to raise awareness of what they say is a worsening human-rights situation in the country.

In Kyrgyzstan, there are no female members in the parliament or any regional governors, and there are only a few women in the cabinet.

The initiators of the six-month long campaign aim to collect 1 million signatures in order to bring attention to the persecution of female human-rights activists. They accuse law enforcement officials and government organs of disgracing and using violence against them.

Tolekan Ismailova, who heads the Citizens Against Corruption Center in Bishkek, and her colleague Aziza Abdrasulova of the Torch of the Century (Kylym shamy), claim that especially female activists are under growing pressure.

Both women are known for their longstanding efforts to protect the rights of ordinary citizens. Their work was internationally recognized when -- along other four Kyrgyz activists -- they were nominated to the list of the 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

In March 2005, authoritarian President Askar Akaev fled the country during the popular uprising known as the Tulip Revolution. On July 10, 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiev -- one of the leaders of the revolution -- was elected president with the promise of respecting the law and civil freedoms.

Criticism Of The President

But many in the opposition claim that he has not fully realized these promises, while some civil-society leaders are raising the alarm at what they say is a worsening situation for human rights.

"The lack of promised reforms is the main reason why the corruption is on the rise, the number of poorer is growing and women activists are being persecuted," Ismailova said at a recent roundtable held by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

A campaign called "Let us Defend Freedom, Dignity, and the Personal Inviolability of People in Kyrgyzstan" was launched by civil activists on July 5.

In a statement, Ismailova and her colleagues gave a long list of activists who were targeted by law-enforcement agencies and the State Committee for National Security.

Among those on the list is Valentina Gritsenko, the chairwoman of the nongovernmental organization Spravedlivost (Justice) in the southern Jalal-Abad Province, who has been persecuted for more than a year for her efforts to disclose information about the alleged torture of a pregnant woman by a local policeman.

Activists Arrested

Arzykan Momuntaeva, the director of the regional office of the Coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, was arrested along with several other activists as well as farmers and a member of a local council in connection with mass disturbances in the western Talas region. The protests were sparked by perceived corruption at a gold mining company. Momuntaeva was later released.

The campaign statement said that prominent civil society leaders Asia Sasykbaeva and Cholpon Jakupova, among others, were questioned several times by the security officials without a lawyer being present.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the international rights watchdog, noted in its 2006 report that in the 18 months since the ouster of Akaev, some aspects of the human rights situation have worsened.

Rachel Denber, the deputy director of HRW on Europe and Central Asia, said that it is getting harder for human-rights activists to conduct their work.

"The particular concern is the government's increasing tendency to try to disrupt the work of the nongovernmental community and intimidate the human-rights activists," she said. "Now we see several cases where human-rights activists are the target of a criminal investigation."

'Room For Improvement'

Denber praised the human-rights defenders as "extraordinarily courageous, intelligent, and sophisticated," adding that it is in the Kyrgyz government's interest to have an open society and to have government accountability. She also said that human-rights defenders are an important part of a strong civil society.

Tursunbek Akun heads the State Committee for Human Rights in President Bakiev's office. Appearing at the RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service's roundtable with Ismailova, he acknowledged that there is still room for improvement.

"Unfortunately, there are many of those in the presidential and government administrations, Prosecutor-General's Office, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Council of National Security who 'behead people when they are asked only to take their hats,'" he said.

In Kyrgyzstan, women are largely sidelined from the political decision-making process. There are no female members in the parliament or any regional governors, and there are only a few women in the cabinet.

Women Active In Society

But at the same time, women are active in small business and they also lead most of the NGOs and human-rights organizations.

In their effort to collect 1 million signatures, the human-rights campaigners are also calling on Bakiev to accelerate the reform of law-enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan as well as to "provide women equal access to resources and politics."

Each signatory to the petition will be asked to give a symbolic 1 som. Then 1 million soms (some $22,000) will be distributed to various charities helping homeless mothers, street children, orphans, and others.

The campaign is scheduled to end on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights.

Kazakhstan: Islamic Group Members On Trial For Terrorism

By Bruce Pannier
August 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has so far escaped major problems with Islamic groups that have plagued the country's Central Asian neighbors, though there are signs that people branded as "Islamic extremists" are becoming more active in Kazakhstan.

Two trials are currently under way in northern Kazakhstan against some 40 members of two banned Islamic groups that shed light on what Kazakh authorities say are the nefarious schemes of some of these groups to cause disorder in the country and topple the government.

"All of this hysteria about the so-called battle against extremism and terrorism is nothing more than the desire of the [Kazakh] government to have another instrument to exert control [over society]."

In the first trial, the Kazybiysky Court in the northern city of Karaganda on August 1 began hearing a case against 30 members of the banned Islamic group Hizb-ut Tahrir. The group aims to create an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, though it publicly rejects using violence to achieve this goal.

Hizb-ut Tahrir On Trial

Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) spokeswoman Botagoz Ibraeva gave RFE/RL's Kazakh Service some details about the suspects in the case.

"Among those facing trial are [Hizb-ut Tahrir] leaders throughout all the regions [of Kazakhstan], financial managers, and publishers of their literature," she said.

The 30 suspects were arrested in December. The KNB spent six months investigating those on trial, questioning more than 300 witnesses and seizing some 35,000 Hizb-ut Tahrir leaflets, six computers, and several illegal small printing houses were dismantled. The defendants are charged with forming a criminal group, fomenting religious hatred, and carrying out extremist activities.

KNB Deputy Chairman Vladimir Bozhko said steps need to be taken against groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir -- even if the group advocates only peaceful means to bring change -- because members could be tempted later to take a more active role in reaching their goal.

"Measures must be taken, especially with regard to organizations that help spread religious extremism in one way or another which, as a rule, grows into terrorism," he said.

Regretful Members?

Ibraeva told RFE/RL that some former Hizb-ut Tahrir members have been speaking out against participating in banned groups.

"Some Hizb-ut Tahrir leaders who understood the extremist nature of this organization's teachings have cooperated with law-enforcement officers and helped locate the party's branches," she said. "They have called on their former comrades to quit the party with pleas broadcast via local media outlets."

The other trial -- which is being held in the northern city of Stepnogorsk -- is more mysterious than the Hizb-ut Tahrir trial. Ibraeva also spoke to RFE/RL about it.

"On July 30 in the Stepnogorsk City Court a trial started against a group of people accused of organizing and operating a terrorist group, illegal purchases, the sale and possession of weapons and explosives, and igniting interethnic hatred in society," she said. "Ten people are facing these charges. The KNB investigation was started in December 2006."

Those 10 defendants are accused of planning terrorist attacks in the area around the capital, Astana, and the commercial capital Almaty. According to the KNB, the defendants planned to rob banks, kidnap people, and stage attacks on police stations and administrative buildings with the ultimate aim of creating an Islamic caliphate in Kazakhstan.

Exactly who these people are is not entirely clear. The KNB describes them as members of groups inspired by Wahhabist teachings, adding that several weapons and a large amount of ammunition were seized from its members along with maps of intended targets.

Extremists Or State Tool?

Many people remain unconvinced that the people on trial in Stepnogorsk are terrorists, since most of the charges against them appear to be the kind of accusations made against common criminals.

Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that call the people on trial in Stepnogorsk terrorists is rather exaggerated.

"All of this hysteria about the so-called battle against extremism and terrorism is nothing more than the desire of the [Kazakh] government to have another instrument to exert control [over society]," she said.

Fokina said the KNB has been trying to improve its image after some of its members were found guilty of involvement in the murder of a leading opposition figure last year.

Fokina repeated a frequently made charge that many security agencies in Central Asia are using the battle against terrorism to jail political opponents or are labeling simple criminals as terrorists to demonstrate to the world community that their countries are part of the international struggle against extremism and terrorism.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and Kazakh Service correspondents Baurzhan Shayakhmet and Danabek Bimenov in Kazakhstan contributed to this report.)