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Motives Behind Attack On Uzbek Imam Remain Unclear

Imam Anvar Tursunov (center) in an undated photo
It was a shocking crime.

The imam of Tashkent, one of Uzbekistan's most influential clerics, was stabbed multiple times on the night of July 31. Imam Anvar Tursunov remains hospitalized in critical condition.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contacted Abdulaziz Mansur, the deputy mufti of Uzbekistan, just after he visited Tursunov in the hospital on August 3. He said the imam's condition is improving.

"He finally started speaking and opening his eyes. We are praying to Allah for his recovery, but he was severely wounded," Mansur said.

Mansur also provided some details of the attack on Tursunov, which reportedly was carried out by three men.

Mansur said Tursunov was at his home in the Yangi-Abad district at 10:30 p.m., "when his son said someone was at the door and wanted to invite him to a religious function."

When Tursunov came to the door, they stabbed him and then fled the scene in a white car.

Possible Motives Sought

Imams and other Islamic clerics are often paid to attend religious functions, ranging from weddings to funerals to memorial services. Combined with the money the clerics receive from worshippers at their mosques, they can at times posses substantial sums.

Considering this, Mutabar Akhmedova, a Tashkent-based activist from Russia's Memorial rights organization, says that the attack could have been financially motivated.

"The place where he works is an enormous mosque that makes a lot of money for him," Akhmedova says. "He was probably involved in some business and received money for that, also."

The website also speculated that business dealings may have played a role, saying that the "attack on the imam could have been a conflict of a commercial character," adding that "in Uzbekistan every Muslim cleric [working] on a regional scale patronizes this or that business within his jurisdiction."

Considering that Tursunov was a regular witness for the prosecution at trials of suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, suspicion has also fallen on members of banned Islamic groups operating in Uzbekistan.

Tursunov appeared in courts as an expert on religion and his opinion carried a great deal of weight in the courts' decisions.

Memorial's Akhmedova says that Tursunov's testimony was influential in verdicts, and he also visited prisons where convicted Islamic extremists are held and "ruled on who could be rehabilitated and who should stay in jail. He appeared on state television numerous times to decry the false teachings of banned groups."

Muslims Suspected?

Abdurakhmon Tashanov, a journalist who lives near Tursunov's home, says law enforcement officials seem to be focusing their search on the Muslim community, including making "nightly checks of mosques."

Officials are not saying whether the attack on Tursunov might be related to an attack some two weeks earlier on the rector of the Islamic Institute, located near Tashkent's central mosque where Tursunov usually delivers his sermons. The rector of the institute was also stabbed, and died from his injuries.

RFE/RL contacted the Council of Ministers' Religious Commission, which gave Tursunov his post, for comments. The commission said the matter falls outside their realm of expertise, and that the attack "is a criminal case."

Also making the rounds on Uzbek websites is speculation that the attack was organized by the authorities, and therefore heralds a crackdown on suspect Muslims.

Tursunov was a popular imam, a fiery orator, and a candidate to one day receive the highest post for an Islamic cleric in Uzbekistan -- the state-approved chief mufti.

Shukrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report