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Uzbek 'Extremists' Blacklisted After Prolonged Absence

One Uzbek woman whose sons live abroad told RFE/RL that she has to endure raids by masked men and ordinary police "before every major public celebration" (file photo)
One Uzbek woman whose sons live abroad told RFE/RL that she has to endure raids by masked men and ordinary police "before every major public celebration" (file photo)

Whenever Uzbek national holidays roll around these days, "Gulnora" knows they're coming. The only real mystery, she says, is whether or not they'll be in balaclavas.

" my home before every major public celebration," says the recently widowed 55-year-old resident of rural Uzbekistan. "There have been raids by masked men and by ordinary police. They embarrass me in front of the neighborhood."

Gulnora, who does not want her real name disclosed, says the men raiding her home are looking for her sons, aged 31 and 36. She blames the perceived harassment, which has also included police questioning and pressure to locate her sons, for the downturn in her husband's lifestyle and health before his death in April.

The young men are among a growing number of citizens thought to be living abroad and blacklisted as extremists by authorities in Uzbekistan, according to a police source who provided one such district list to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

"We do indeed have an instruction according to which we put on the wanted list those who were absent from Uzbekistan for a long time. This is a question of security," says the same source.

The suspects face immediate arrest on their return, the source says, adding that police and security services across the country have hundreds of similar lists of suspected members of "religious-extremist organizations."

It is all but impossible to verify the claim. But locals contacted via details on one such list and interviewed for this story have expressed concern at their own or family members' presence on the blacklist.

'Harsh Repression'

Uzbekistan's government has long warned of the dangers of militant Islam in a region where religious expression was routinely suppressed under Soviet rule. The emergence this decade of Islamic State (IS) and its particularly brutal ideology, along with its global recruitment efforts, has lent greater urgency to Tashkent's and other governments' efforts to combat religious and other forms of extremism.

A new report by the British-based Foreign Policy Center (FPC), a think tank, criticizes Uzbekistan and several other former Soviet states for the "harsh repression of political opponents and independent religious movements that has forced thousands to flee abroad."

The FPC says the Uzbek government already engaged in "extra-territorial repression," but adds that "over the past one and a half years, the situation of Uzbek refugees has considerable (sic) worsened." It cites "formal tactics [that] include the use and misuse of legal and policing agreements, while informal mechanisms include surveillance, threats and attacks, abductions, forcible renditions and even assassinations."

Contacted via the police list, "Shavkat," a 33-year-old Uzbek migrant in Cairo who agreed to speak if RFE/RL didn't use his real name, says he and his Russian wife have been living in the Egyptian capital for nearly four years. Before coming to Egypt, Shavkat says, he left a construction job in Vladivostok, home to a sizable community of Uzbek migrant laborers on Russia's Pacific coast.

'Bogus' Charges

Shavkat describes himself as a practicing Muslim, but he insists he has never had any links to religious extremist groups.

He says he left Russia after his brother -- whom he describes as a non-practicing Muslim -- was deported by Russian authorities to Uzbekistan along with two fellow villagers. His brother is serving a nine-year jail sentence, he says, for charges of Islamic extremism that he calls bogus.

There are at least 16 other names, including four women, on the district police's fugitives list from Shavkat's native village of around 25,000 inhabitants.

Contacted by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, relatives of blacklisted individuals complain of pressure by authorities seeking information about their family members.

A woman whose 29-year-old son is on the wanted list says "men in black masks" raided her home in late August amid preparations to mark the country's 25th independence anniversary.

"They took away [the equivalent of $900] that my son-in-law had sent for my medical treatment," she says, adding that authorities have never returned the money.

Some relatives were surprised to learn that their family members were being sought by authorities.

'Security And Stability'

A 57-year-old man whose name and phone number are listed as the father of a "suspect" says his daughter and her husband have worked in Turkey for nearly four years. She "frequently calls home," he says, and has no idea that she has been blacklisted.

Uzbekistan has a history of extremist activity, including a series of explosions in the capital, Tashkent, in 1999 blamed on the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Included on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, the IMU group pledged allegiance to IS in 2015.

There is ample evidence that Uzbeks fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and social media posts and other evidence point to hundreds of Uzbek nationals having joined IS militants in Syria and Iraq.

Uzbek officials insist their measures are justified in pursuit of security and stability, and they cite security successes.

The government has taken tough steps to target religious extremism by arresting and persecuting suspected followers and supporters of radical movements.

But it has also come under widespread criticism for crackdowns on political opponents and innocent Muslims in the process.

The authorities opened fire on antigovernment protesters in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005, blaming the unrest on alleged supporters of Akramiya, a religious group that Tashkent has banned as a terrorist group.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Mehribon Bekieva

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