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Central Asia Report: February 15, 2008

Kazakhstan: One Of Few Remaining Independent Newspapers Faces Closure

By Bruce Pannier

Most Kazakh newspapers are controlled by the government and its allies

An Astana court has ordered the independent newspaper "Law and Justice" to be closed, alleging that errors were made when the newspaper was registered.

But the newspaper's owners allege that the decision has nothing to do with their registration -- and everything to do with shutting down an independent media outlet that reports on corruption within Kazakhstan's judiciary.

The newspaper has appealed the court's ruling, announced on February 14.

Tokbergen Abiev, the owner and editor in chief of the newspaper, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the court decision aims to intimidate the independent media in Kazakhstan. "This is pressure against the media through the judicial system," he says.

Abiev also says the Astana interregional economic court made its decision based on a mix-up between two different companies under the same name. "The foundation of the newspaper 'Law and Justice' is completely different from this other company that is also called Law and Justice," Abiev said. "We will contest this verdict and take it to the Supreme Court, and we are going to stick to our position."

Abiev says that while his newspaper is not the organization that had factual errors in its registration, he is sure the court knows that and that the decision was intentionally aimed at his newspaper. The newspaper was targeted for closure, he says, because "we always report about the activities of judges, about illegal rulings, and violations of the rights of citizens."

One of those named in the "Law and Justice" stories was Saylaubek Dzhakishev, the chairman of the Astana City Court.

Zhumabike Zhunusova, a journalist at another independent newspaper, "Svoboda slova," says if the judges implicated in the "Law and Justice" reports feel they have been unfairly targeted by the stories, then they should themselves resort to the court system for redress. "This is not slander, this is criticism," Zhunosva said. "If this was slander, why didn't [the authorities] bring a case to court? This is an example that shows that freedom of speech is under fire in this country."

"Law and Justice" is the first independent newspaper to face closure in more than a year in Kazakhstan. That does not mean that the Kazakh government has given the press free rein, but rather that the authorities have already closed most of the critical media outlets in the country. The majority of the media that remains is state-owned or controlled by friends or supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The newspaper has already suffered through one crisis. In March 2007, one of its journalists, Oralgaisha Omarshanova, traveled south to the Almaty area to cover ethnic unrest in a small town. The 39-year-old Omarshanova disappeared before reaching the town. She has not been heard from since.

There is no date set for when a court will hear "Law and Justice's" appeal to remain open.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

Kyrgyzstan: New Effort Aggressively Counters Hizb Ut-Tahrir, Religious Extremism

By Bruce Pannier

Hizb-ut Tahrir leaflet and literature obtained in Kyrgyzstan in 2006

Kyrgyzstan has signaled the imminent launch of a campaign to stamp out the outlawed Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, marking a departure from a toothless ban that has contrasted sharply with its treatment elsewhere in the region.

Prime Minister Viktor Chudinov on January 28 ordered into action a plan to combat the "spread of religious extremism" during the next three years. The only group identified by name was the "religious extremist party Hizb-ut Tahrir."

Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to establish a caliphate in order to "resume the Islamic way of life," but rejects violence as a means to achieving that aim. It is banned throughout Central Asia.

Yet Kyrgyz authorities have never pursued the group with quite the same energy as their counterparts in neighboring Tajikistan, let alone as aggressively as the Uzbek government. Indeed, in some parts of Kyrgyzstan's section of the restive Ferghana Valley, there has seemed to be a tacit agreement between local authorities and Hizb ut-Tahrir members that if the religious group keeps a low profile, its followers can live and work untrammeled.

Now, that seems set to change.

Jolbors Jorobekov, former director of the Kyrgyz State Agency on Religious Affairs, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Hizb ut-Tahrir has succeeded in reaching far and wide across the country.

"Today, Hizb ut-Tahrir members are conducting their propaganda work in mountainous, remote regions -- the low standard of living of such regions is the reason for this," Jorobekov says. "It is all connected to financial conditions."

Ebb And Flow

Jorobekov says enlistment efforts rise and fall with the level of resources at members' disposal. "When they have money, they increase their recruitment activities -- they have the human and other resources -- brochures and leaflets, for example," Jorobekov says. "And when they don't have the finances, they again operate quietly, out of sight."

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency reported on January 28 that "various Islamic religious groups from extremist sects" have been stepping up their activities in Kyrgyzstan. The news agency mentioned Hizb ut-Tahrir and reported that members who "earlier were only active in Kyrgyzstan's southern regions" are now increasingly working in the northern regions of the country and in the capital, Bishkek.

Kanat Murzakhalilov, the deputy director of the State Agency on Religious Affairs, tells RFE/RL that because of the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups, it is important to work throughout the country to counter their influence. The Kyrgyz government's decision should serve as a "warning," he says.

Hizb ut-Tahrir "activists carry on their propaganda activities underground, but they are as active now as they ever were," Murzakhalilov says. "The members of our agency -- together with the Spiritual Board of Muslims -- are working to explain [the dangers] to the people."

He adds that Kyrgyz authorities are also "engaged in various preventative measures" concerning Hizb ut-Tahrir, which describes itself as "a political party whose ideology is Islam."

Broad Reach

Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence reaches far beyond northern Kyrgyzstan. The group is not outlawed in Britain, and it is bolstered globally by an Internet presence that includes chat rooms and other informal channels to engage the disaffected.

Members have been arrested in major industrial cities in northern Kazakhstan and Russian Siberia.

Hizb ut-Tahrir preaches the overthrow of secular governments and establishment of an Islamic state based on Shari'a law. Just how far this Islamic state extends depends on which member is speaking. Some consider the Ferghana Valley, also shared by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to be sufficient. Others claim to want all of Central Asia -- or all the traditionally Islamic lands.

Its website describes its mission as "establishing an Islamic state that executes the systems of Islam and carries its call to the world." Hizb ut-Tahrir denounces the use of violence.

Governments in Central Asia have made numerous attempts to link the group to violent acts, although there has never been any conclusive evidence to prove such a link. Reports of arrests of members mention literature, audiotapes, and sometimes computer discs as being confiscated. A few cartridges of ammunition have also been found.

But signs of an expanding membership concerns the governments in the region. The ITAR-TASS report cited "official information" that said there were some 2,000 Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Kyrgyzstan, but added that "experts in the security field" say they number many times higher.

Defiant Membership

Chudinov's statement did not shed any light on Kyrygzstan's planned tactics in its campaign against religious extremism. It only said that "ministries, state committees, administrative departments, and other organs of the executive branch, local government administrations, and authorities" would participate.

RFE/RL spoke with a defiant Hizb ut-Tahrir member who accused the Kyrgyz government of attacking Islam, saying that no new campaign against his group would eliminate it or prevent its activities.

"This action against the activities of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party will not have any effect," the member said. "It will not be curtailed or stopped. We will continue to do our task in accordance with our program -- that is to say, we will carry on our political and ideological struggle."

The dedication and intensity of that struggle remains to be seen, as there are officials in the Kyrgyz government who in the past have called for legalizing and registering Hizb ut-Tahrir. Those officials, including Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, are likely to keep a close watch on the campaign against Islamic extremists to guard against rights violations.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be pressing Kyrgyz authorities to round up as many Hizb ut-Tahrir members as possible and prevent the group from strengthening its foothold anywhere in the region, including Kyrgyzstan.

(Eleonora Kulenbekova of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

Turkmen President Announces Amnesty, Excluding Political Prisoners

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Berdymukhammedov says he will keep issuing regular pardons (file photo)

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has announced the imminent release of 1,269 prisoners -- a group that apparently does not include the country’s most well-known imprisoned dissidents and human rights activists.

The list of prisoners, including 190 women, was published on February 14 in official Turkmen media. They are expected to be released on the eve of Flag Day on February 19.

Most of those granted amnesty have been imprisoned for less than three months. But RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports from Ashgabat that there are no political prisoners among the latest pardoned inmates, even though some 1,100 of them have been in prison for under three months.

Berdymukhammedov, who has announced several other amnesties since taking office a year ago, has said prisoners would be pardoned on a regular basis, much as was done under his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

On February 13, the president reiterated that he would continue the policy. “As I said in the past, we will amnesty prisoners several times a year on the eve of each holiday,” he said.

The fate of Turkmenistan's most prominent political prisoner, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, remains unclear. Shikhmuradov was charged with masterminding an alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002. Many fear he has died in prison.

Shikhmuradov's son Bairam, who is the leader of the unregistered Republican Party of Turkmenistan, tells RFE/RL from Moscow that he has not seen his father since late 2002. He and his relatives have tried many times to get information about his fate, but all attempts have failed.

“Unfortunately, the situation has not changed at all. We don't know anything about when he could be released or whether he is alive. It has been five years in January since he was imprisoned," Bairam Shikhmuradov says. "Niyazov said that relatives would be allowed to visit those imprisoned on charges related to [the incident] on November 25 [2002] only after they had served five years in prison. But there has been no progress. We keep writing to Turkmen authorities regularly. But they have never responded. Visits are out of the question.”

Imprisoned Activists

Human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev have been in prison since June 2006 on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges. The two men were detained along with Ogulsapar Muradova, an RFE/RL correspondent who died in custody a few weeks later, apparently from ill-treatment.

Anna Sunder-Plassman of London-based Amnesty International says Amanklychev and Khajiev are considered prisoners of conscience by the rights group, which is skeptical of the practice of prisoner amnesties. "We also believe there are a number of political prisoners," she says. "They should receive fair retrial where all the evidence could be considered fairly and where they would have proper legal assistance. So, our organization has an ambiguous position toward prisoner pardon because we believe there should be a proper judicial review in political prisoners’ cases. Nevertheless, we would, of course, welcome if prisoners of conscience were released by presidential pardon.”

Sunder-Plassman urges the Turkmen authorities to hold fair trials of those prisoners and to conduct a “fair and thorough” investigation into allegations of torture.

The country's former chief mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, became the first prominent political prisoner to be released under Berdymukhammedov. Ibadullah was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2004 for involvement in the alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov. He was released in August 2007 and was allowed to return to work with the state Council for Religious Affairs.

In the most recent mass amnesty, in October 2007, some 9,000 people were pardoned. Among them were Boris Shikhmuradov's nephew and his sister-in-law.

Also amnestied was Geldy Kyarizov, the former director of the governmental association Turkmenatlary (Turkmen Horses) and an internationally renowned breeder of the famous Akhalteke horses. Kyarizov was the subject of numerous clemency appeals to the Turkmen government by rights organizations.

He had been held in detention since January 2002 and, according to Amnesty International, has long suffered from poor health. Kyarizov's prison term for alleged abuse of office and negligence was due to expire in April 2008.

Bairam Shikhmuradov says he is not sure his father will be among those pardoned this time. But “hope is always there," he says, adding that he welcomes the planned release of more than 1,200 people. "I’d be very happy to see a few acquaintances’ names on the list. I believe that some day all people who ended up in jail because of unfair charges will be set free. Of course, I mean those who are still alive.”

(RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

Two Years Later, Kazakh Opposition Leader's Murder Still Casts Long Shadow

By Bruce Pannier

An opposition supporter holds a picture of Sarsenbaev days after his 2006 murder

On February 13, 2006, the bullet-ridden body of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, a leading Kazakh opposition figure, was found on the outskirts of Almaty.

The investigation into his killing touched the highest echelons of power in Kazakhstan. Although the court case is over, the incident continues to cast a shadow over Kazakh politics -- not least because President Nursultan Nazarbaev himself has been accused of ordering the murder.

Sarsenbaev's friends, relatives, and supporters gathered this week to remember the fiery opposition leader on the second anniversary of his murder.

Among them was Zhamarkhan Tuyakbai, the Social Democratic Party chief seen as the leading voice in the opposition since Sarsenbaev's death. "In the 1990s, if there was a politician who did more than others to strengthen our nation's statehood, who contributed a lot in plans and projects to develop their country, who helped to preserve the nation's prestige in the international arena, that person was Altynbek Sarsenbaev," Tuyakbai said.

Sarsenbaev was an opposition leader at the time of his death, but he had previously served as information minister, head of the Security Council, and ambassador to Russia.

On February 13, 2006, the bodies of Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard were discovered in the Talgar district outside Almaty. They had been missing for three days. The killings came only a few months after the death of another leading opposition figure, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, but authorities said he killed himself, in spite of the bullet wounds in his chest and head.

Powerful Defendants

Eventually, Kazakh investigators arrested 10 men and put them on trial for Sarsenbaev's murder. Among the defendants were the head of the Senate administration, Yerzhan Utembaev, and members of an elite unit from the National Security Committee (KNB), whose chief, Nartai Dutbaev, resigned in disgrace. The prosecution alleged that Utembaev ordered the killing because Sarsenbaev had insulted him by calling him a drunk.

In early March 2006, Nazarbaev read a letter to deputies in parliament that he said was authored by Utembaev. "Nobody pushed me, nobody gave me any advice. For many years now I've been feeling personal enmity toward him [Sarsenbaev]. His statements about me damaged my nerves and made me go beyond the boundaries of reason," Nazarbaev quoted the letter as saying. "That's what he wrote. These things happen among human beings," he added.

At his trial, Utembaev claimed he was set up and that his confession was coerced. Similarly, former policeman Rustam Ibragimov, who was found guilty of carrying out the killing, also retracted his confession in court. All 10 defendants were found guilty and given lengthy prison sentences. Ibragimov was sentenced to death, though a moratorium on capital punishment in Kazakhstan means he will instead spend his life in prison.

But Sarsenbaev's brother, Rysbek, and others in the opposition suggested there had much more senior involvement in the crime. "Those who ordered the crime are very senior officials, and they are fighting among themselves," Rysbek Sarsenbaev said. "Utembaev and Ibragimov are just puppets in their hands. And those who pull those puppets' strings are still hiding in the shadows. They haven't even been found yet."

Some speculate that Senate leader Nurtai Abykaev, who is next in line to be leader of the country, was involved. Others said Nazarbaev's former son-in-law Rakhat Aliev ordered the killing. Aliev is now divorced from Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha. A Kazakh court recently convicted him of serious crimes and sentenced him in absentia to 20 years in prison, but Aliev remains in exile in Austria.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service in October 2007, Aliev accused his former father-in-law of ordering the killing. "The order for the elimination of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was given from the territory of Austria, when President Nazarbaev was on holiday in Klagenfurt, Austria, in early February 2006, where [Abykaev] came just for a few hours," Aliev said.

For Kazakh authorities, the Sarsenbaev killing is a closed issue. State media did not note this week's anniversary, and only a few independent media outlets mentioned it.

But for the beleaguered Kazakh opposition, the murder remains an open wound.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

EU Likely To Drop Visa Ban Against Uzbekistan

By Ahto Lobjakas
BRUSSELS -- It is looking increasingly likely that the European Union will quietly abandon one of the key sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of the bloody events in Andijon in May 2005, when security forces killed hundreds of demonstrators.

EU officials have indicated that the visa ban on eight top officials, currently suspended, is unlikely to be reinstated when EU foreign ministers review it in April.

Uzbekistan has yet to meet any of the conditions attached to the suspension, but there is a growing feeling within the EU that the visa ban is an obstacle to greater dialogue with Tashkent.

The ban has long caused controversy among EU member states. Some, led by Germany, feel it is a counterproductive affront to Tashkent in view of the EU's quest for "engagement" with Uzbekistan and Central Asia in general.

Others, led by Britain, say the human rights situation in Uzbekistan has worsened in recent months. Those responsible for the deaths at Andijon still go unpunished, there is no media freedom, political opposition is harshly persecuted, torture in prisons is commonplace, and there is a growing concern about the use of child slave labor in the cotton industry, which is critical to Uzbekistan's economy.

The EU countries that back engagement have been in the ascendancy in the union for some time. Germany, which authored the EU's Central Asia strategy adopted in June 2007, flexed its political muscles in October when it forced a six-month suspension of the EU visa ban on eight Uzbek officials considered complicit in the Andijon deaths and the event's aftermath.

Losing Link To Andijon?

The suspension of the ban came with a list of tough conditions attached to it, and human rights activists were initially not worried. But it now appears the conditions contain a carefully manufactured loophole that allows Berlin to end the visa ban on what is really a technicality.

Germany is backed in its quest for greater engagement with Uzbekistan by the EU's executive branch, the European Commission. Gunnar Wiegand, a senior commission official in charge of relations with the former Soviet Union, told a conference in Brussels on January 31 that it is the new conditions that make the visa ban problematic -- because they break the linkage with Andijon.

"We now may face a situation where sanctions are maintained because of the human rights situation," Wiegand said. "And then we are faced with a double-standards question in the region: 'Why do you have sanctions because of human rights against one country, but not against other countries?'"

When the EU's foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg on April 28 -- which is when the six-month suspension of the visa ban runs out -- they will have to evaluate Tashkent's recent record on a number of issues.

These include international access to Uzbek prisoners, access for UN special rapporteurs, the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate freely, the releasing of jailed human rights defenders and an end to their harassment, as well as "engaging positively" with the EU on human rights issues.

International human rights bodies say Uzbekistan is likely to have failed on all counts in April. But, as Wiegand says, the EU may have no option but to discontinue the visa ban, because the crucial linkage with Andijon has been lost.

The linkage with Andijon existed in October 2005, when the visa ban was first imposed along with an arms embargo and a freeze on EU assistance programs. It was there in May 2007, when the names of four officials were taken off the visa-ban list, leaving eight. But the linkage is no longer there now.

It appears Germany carefully planned this in October 2007, when it caught proponents of the visa ban among EU member states by surprise by agreeing to the tough conditions.

EU officials then told RFE/RL the conditions appeared superfluous, as Germany and its supporters could have forced the EU to drop the visa ban altogether -- its 12-month term had come to an end and unanimity was needed to extend it. Wiegand's comments on January 31 suggest Berlin had already found a more elegant and less divisive way out of the deadlock.

Slapping visa bans on other repressive Central Asian regimes is not a serious option for the EU, as it seeks greater "engagement" with the region. The EU is attracted predominantly by Turkmen and Kazakh energy reserves, but also sees the region as a crucial geopolitical nexus that needs to be contested with Russia, China, and other outside rivals for influence.