Aman Sagidullaev and his family don’t go outdoors much these days. They have been refugees in Kyrgyzstan for more than two years, but Sagidullaev told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, that recently men he suspects are from Uzbekistan’s security service have arrived in the area and are seeking to forcibly take him back to Uzbekistan, where he faces serious charges.
The official charges against Sagidullaev, so far, are abuse of his position as head of an agricultural equipment manufacturer and embezzlement of some $1 million. But were he to be dragged home, he would likely also be facing charges of separatism for his role as leader of the Alga Karakalpakstan movement.
Sagidullayev’s group wants independence for Karakalpakstan and claims it is not a case of separatism but a right granted to the autonomous region in the constitution. Alga Karakalpakstan has called for a referendum to be conducted in the autonomous region on the issue of independence.
An agreement signed in 1993 kept Karakalpakstan as part of Uzbekistan for a period of 20 years, after which the autonomous region could hold a referendum on leaving Uzbekistan.
That alone would be sufficient to annoy the Uzbek government, but at the start of June, the Alga Karakalpakstan movement used social network sites to send a message urging the World Bank to withhold a $411 million loan intended for improvements in Karakalpakstan. The group said the money would only help Uzbek authorities continue infringing on the rights of minorities, particularly the Karakalpaks.
Uzbek authorities quickly issued an international warrant for Sagidullayev’s arrest on the embezzlement charges.
Karakalpakstan does not receive much attention. There is not much there. The autonomous region covers about one-third of Uzbekistan, but of the 30 million people living in Uzbekistan only 1.5 million live in Karakalpakstan.
Most of it is covered by Central Asia’s two great deserts; the Kara-Kum and Kyzyl-Kum. That is the reason Uzbekistan’s most notorious prison -- Jaslyk -- is located there.
For centuries, those who did live in the region depended on the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world. Now the sea has almost entirely dried up on the Uzbek side of the border and what was once a source of life for the people in the Karakalpakstan region is now a source of problems. Where once there was water there is now alkaline soil. When the winds blow, they carry salt that withers crops and causes numerous health problems to people living there.
The Karakalpaks themselves are closer to the Kazakhs than to the Uzbeks. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, several hundred thousand Karakalpaks have crossed into Kazakhstan.
But Karakalpakstan has oil and natural gas, so when people such as Sagidullaev start talking about independence from Uzbekistan, the reaction in Tashkent is predictable.
Sagidullaev told Azattyk that strangers claiming to be from law enforcement have appeared at the refugee camp where he and his family are living. These strangers have made enquiries with the camp’s administration about Sagidullaev and his children. He is sure they are from Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (SNB).
Sagidullaev has been appealing to Kyrgyz authorities and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to be granted political asylum, so far without success.
But he does have a valuable local ally, Aziza Abdirasulova, the head of the Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) rights movement. Abdirasulova told Azattyk she believes Sagidullaev when he says the SNB are in Kyrgyzstan to take him and his family back. She noted it would not be the first time SNB agents have entered Kyrgyzstan without permission from the Kyrgyz government and snatched Uzbek citizens from Kyrgyzstan’s cities.
So Kylym Shamy is trying to help Sagidullaev and his family to receive official refugee status. “With the help of an attorney, we have appealed to the [UNHCR] representative office in Almaty [Kazakhstan], but we still have not received an answer from there,” Abdirasulova said.
Of course, Uzbekistan’s government maintains Sagidullaev is simply a thief, and there have been enough examples of Uzbek officials and businessmen pilfering from the state to make such charges plausible.
In Sagidullaev’s favor, Uzbek authorities do not appear to have been much interested in getting him back from Kyrgyzstan until the social network campaign aimed at the World Bank was launched. And if he did take $1 million, one wonders why he and his family are living in a refugee camp in a neighboring country when they could be far away in more luxurious accommodations.
But for me, the most telling moment was an article posted on the zomondosh.com website on July 3, roughly one month after Uzbekistan issued the arrest warrant for Sagidullaev. It was titled “Down With the Faithless, or Who Is This Aman Sagidullayev?” and written by someone calling themselves Nurlan Kanapiev. The words used to describe Sagidullaev would apply equally to the devil. Usually when that happens in Central Asia, one senses a servant of the government at work.
The latest report from Azattyk about Sagidullaev said representatives from Kyrgyzstan's Interior Ministry and State National Security Committee had met with the Karakalpak leader.
-- Bruce Pannier
Ulan Eshamtov, Cholpon Sulaymanova, and Zhildys Orospakova of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service helped in preparing this report