A former Uzbek intelligence officer who claims President Islam Karimov personally ordered massacres in that strategic Central Asian state has arrived in Britain to claim political asylum after months in hiding abroad.
Ikrom Yakubov, a former major in the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB), was due to lodge his asylum bid in London, sources have told RFE/RL. He arrived on September 1 from a location in Europe where he has been hiding since fleeing Uzbekistan earlier this year, fearing for his life.
His decision is the culmination of a long and risky journey: from an intelligence officer who reported directly to Karimov to the realization that he no longer wanted "to work for the executioner." His credibility rests on nearly a decade as an SNB officer, including two years as a member of the president's National Security Council.
Yakubov tells RFE/RL about the scope of official brutality.
"When I worked inside Karimov's government, I've seen a lot of illegal things, terrible things, horrible things," the 27-year-old Yakubov tells RFE/RL. "How they are creating accusations [against] people; how they are killing, murdering people, simple people, simple believers in Islam; how they are creating fear among the population."
"I was also one of the [apparatchiks] -- one of the parts of these terrible policies," says Yakubov, who has been sharing his story with RFE/RL for the past two months.
Yakubov says Karimov directly ordered senior military officers to instruct troops to fire on protesters in the eastern city of Andijon in 2005, killing more than 1,500 people -- twice as many as rights groups estimated. Karimov has repeatedly denied that charge.
Yakubov also accuses the Uzbek government of pursuing a policy of "false flag" terrorism by orchestrating attacks and then blaming them on Islamist militants in an effort to demonize the opposition and win foreign support.
According to Yakubov, the Uzbek government also engineered a plane crash in 2004 that killed United Nations official Richard Conroy.
Yakubov’s allegations cast a harsh new light on Uzbekistan, which is marking the 17th anniversary of its independence from Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was also in Tashkent for talks with Karimov.
Accusations similar to Yakubov's have been made by activists, dissidents, and critics, including Britain's former ambassador to Tashkent, Craig Murray. But Yakubov’s position within the regime lends them greater credibility. "These are not fanciful allegations," Murray tells RFE/RL. "These are things where the new evidence is adding to the picture of things that we pretty well already knew and had some evidence for."
But Murray also recommends caution in examining the allegations. "There are agents and double agents -- people who themselves are playing both sides and are reporting to both sides," he says.
Yakubov, who speaks fluent English, denies being a double agent or an infiltrator. He says he wants only to tell the truth about the regime.
Diplomatic sources from Western countries have corroborated parts of Yakubov's accounts. Also, his position within Karimov's inner circle has been confirmed by leading Uzbek dissident figures.
Yakubov first caught RFE/RL's attention in early July, when two reporters fromUzbek Service stumbled across eyebrow-raising articles on an emigre website. A contributor using the handle Abdulloh Sarbador was claiming to be a former intelligence officer who had turned against Karimov and fled. He claimed to have inside information -- and had begun writing about it.
The reporters, Farruh Yusupov and Shukhrat Babajanov, set out to track down the alleged defector. Through emigre channels, they found him in hiding abroad.
At first, Yakubov agreed to give a telephone interview only on the condition of anonymity. He went public with his name in mid-July after a relative died in a car crash under mysterious circumstances. He believed the regime was taking aim at his family.
Yakubov anticipates Uzbek charges and rebuts them.
Yakubov later met with RFE/RL journalists in the country where he has been living.
“It will be very difficult maybe to my family also, to my family members, or the teachers who prepared me, they recommended me, to work for Karimov,” Yakubov said in a face-to-face interview. “I know it will be very difficult for them. But this is my fate, this is my destiny, and this is my decision. I decided to tell the truth about Karimov’s illegal reign. And nobody can stop me.”
Close To Power
In his conversation with members of the Uzbek Service, and in subsequent contact, Yakubov made other serious allegations which he said were based on personal conversations with officials directly involved in the events.
Yakubov's own intelligence background, as he tells it, is lengthy and tortuous. His SNB apprenticeship began at age 15 as a student informer at Tashkent State University.
He says the bulk of his information on the Andijon massacre comes from discussions with a senior SNB officer who participated in the events of May 13, 2005. According to this source, forces under the command of Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, a former Tajik colonel wanted by Tajik officials for his role in an alleged coup attempt, fired on the protesters on Karimov's direct orders.
Khudaiberdiev and his forces are now part of an elite guard that protects Karimov and his daughters, Yakubov says. This guard is also tasked with ensuring that one daughter, Gulnara Karimova, successfully takes power after the death of her 70-year-old father, who may have leukemia, according to Yakubov’s sources.
However, Yakubov says that even with her elite guard, Karimova is unlikely to easily seize power, given the high level of disaffection in Uzbek society and in the intelligence and security services themselves. He suggests that Western policymakers, with an eye toward a succession struggle, recalibrate their ties to Tashkent and reach out to dissidents inside and outside the regime.
In early 2002, Yakubov was promoted to head a special “information security” unit monitoring international organizations, dissidents, and the media for the National Security Council. He reported directly to Karimov. But two years later, Yakubov was fired after writing Security Council reports that criticized policy. His last report took issue with the official account of the bombings that killed 47 people in Tashkent and Bukhara in the spring of 2004.
The government blamed the explosions on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist group, and Hizb-ut Tahrir, an organization that eschews violence but seeks Islamic rule in Central Asia. Yakubov says that after speaking to an operational officer directly involved in the bombings, he realized that the government itself had prepared them.
Murray, then the British envoy in Tashkent, also reached the same conclusion. Murray physically inspected the Tashkent bombing sites shortly after the explosions -- an episode recounted in his book, "Murder in Samarkand."
"I reported that back to London -- that I suspected these were 'false flag' bombing operations carried out by the Uzbek government in order to justify their clampdown and demonize the opposition," says Murray, who was later sacked from the British Foreign Service. "What [Yakubov] is saying appears to back up the physical evidence which I personally witnessed on the ground. I think his information does appear to stand up."
In a related charge, Yakubov says the regime itself has propped up many alleged extremist groups and their leaders, including Tahir Yuldash, the purported IMU leader, and Akram Yuldash, the alleged spiritual leader of Akramia, the group Uzbek authorities blamed for sparking the unrest in Andijon.
"Akram Yuldash, Tahir Yuldash -- these are specially created men by SNB," Yakubov says. "IMU also [was] created by SNB, according to the order of Karimov. Tahir Yuldash has a very close contact with Karimov, and Tahir Yuldash [carries out] the orders of Karimov."
Yakubov adds that he has seen classified papers addressed to Karimov stating that Yuldash himself killed Juma Namangani, his predecessor as IMU leader, in order to take sole leadership of the organization. Namangani was reportedly killed in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led offensive to oust the Taliban in 2001, but his body has never been found.
Yuldash is now reportedly in Pakistan's tribal areas, commanding a unit of unclear size in support of pro-Taliban forces. Akram Yuldash was imprisoned in 1999 on terrorism charges, which he denies.
Warned, Sacked, And Beaten
Yakubov has other allegations.
For example, he says the Uzbek government was behind the plane crash that killed UN development official Conroy in January 2004 -- a suspicion also aired in Murray's book. Yakubov says he spoke with the crash's chief investigator, who said Conroy had information linking Uzbek authorities to drug trafficking.
He also says he has documents that back up that claim and also show that, through front companies, the Uzbek government is involved in trafficking women abroad for prostitution.
After leaving the National Security Council in spring 2004, Yakubov was placed at the Press and Information Agency, a ministry that, among other things, monitors opposition media, including RFE/RL. This year, the agency produced a film, aired repeatedly on Uzbek television, denouncing RFE/RL and identifying intimate details of its Uzbek journalists, including names and addresses of their homes and children's schools. Yakubov said that film was meant as a warning.
Yakubov continued to write critical reports, however, and was sacked again after less than a year at that job. The same thing happened to him at his next job as an analyst at the Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies, a government think tank. By spring 2007, he was desperate.
Shortly thereafter, Yakubov says he was badly beaten. Last February, he was warned by the same SNB senior officer who had informed him about Andijon that the authorities were planning his arrest. He quoted the officer as saying, "Go, Ikrom, leave Uzbekistan."
So he plotted his escape, seizing an opportunity to join a human rights group as an interpreter on a visit to London last spring. From there, he then went into hiding in another country -- only to return to Britain on September 1.
The Uzbek government in the past has faced similar accusations -- and denied them all. But Yakubov knows the accusations are now likely to start flowing fast in the other direction -- straight at him.
He expects Tashkent to issue a warrant for his arrest through Interpol, the international law-enforcement agency.
And he can already imagine the charges -- and the punishment.
"Death penalty," he says, adding that the charges are likely to include treason, cooperation with foreign intelligence, and supporting action against the constitutional order. "Maybe it really seems like treason. But I want to say this: I do not recognize Islam Karimov as the legal president of Uzbekistan. Please, publish these words."