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Kyrgyz Crackdown on Islamic Religious Groups Set to Continue in 2001

As President Askar Akayev establishes the administrative groundwork for his third term, a government crackdown in Kyrgyzstan is continuing. Specifically, authorities are targeting activists of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, charging that the group is supporting Islamic insurgent activity in the region. Some members of the group, however, say they have no affiliation with the insurgents.

Most recently, authorities in the Osh region arrested three Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists for distributing leaflets that call for the establishment of an Islamic state, according to local press reports January 3. Officials contend that the leaflets incite violence. The Islamic group is most active in southern Kyrgyzstan, which has a significant ethnic Uzbek population.

Concurrent with a crackdown against unsanctioned religious activity, officials have targeted human rights activists. In perhaps the most prominent instance of official harassment, Ramazan Dyryldaev, the chairman of Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights fled the country last summer after officials issued a warrant for his arrest. He found asylum in Austria.

In November 2000, law enforcement officials of the town of Kara-Su arrested Ravshan Gapirov, the chairman of "Pravosudie," a Kara-Su town based human rights organization, which had offered legal representation to some alleged religious activists from Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other groups. Officials allege Gapirov had been involved in extortion. Gapirov has denied the charge.

"Kyrgyz officials seem to copy their Uzbek counterparts in being very intolerant and extremely nervous about religious groups, which they believe have connection with the insurgency in Batken," said Saipjan Makhamadjanov, a journalist in Osh, Kyrgyzstan's southern capital. "In addition to making this topic a taboo issue for the local media by harshly censoring them, and by creating a negative image of religious rebels naming them terrorists, officials crack down on everybody who shows sympathy with these people."

Political opponents of the government are also being harassed. In the highest profile case, the political council of the opposition Ar-Namys Party on January 3 urged its leader Felix Kulov to leave the country to avoid government persecution. Kulov, widely considered to be President Akayev's main political rival, was acquitted in August of corruption charges. However, a Bishkek Military Court is scheduled to review the case on January 9. Kulov potentially faces an eight-year prison term if the military court reverses his acquittal.

A primary source of the broad crackdown is rooted in the insurgent activity of the past two summers in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, as well as in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Guerrilla attacks have raised concern about growing regional instability. The insurgents reportedly belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is fighting to oust Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government. Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials say Islamic fighters have received training and logistical support from the Taliban, which controls up to 95 percent of Afghanistan's territory.

Some members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which advocates the revival of an Islamic caliphate, deny that they seek the violent overthrow of established governments in Central Asia.

"We, in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, do not support armed resistance and aggression against governments" said Kozimjon, 17 year old Hizb-ut-Tahrir member who was earlier accused of distributing leaflets containing the group's propaganda. "We believe in peaceful transformation to an Islamic state though the persuasion of people. We want to make the idea of rule of Shariat [Islamic law] attractive among all layers of community. Under no circumstances do we apply the threat or use force to bring people to truth."

Several Osh based journalists reported that their newspapers received letters from the representatives from "Hizb-ut-Tahrir." These letters sought to explain the mission, goals and objectives of the group, and asked for understanding. Reportedly, upon finding that out, the Kyrgyz security services immediately invited the editors of these mass media outlets for private discussions. A number of journalists fear that the outcome of this is that the security services will launch a new round of arrests, and that local mass media outlets will be compelled to support the campaign.

Meanwhile, Akayev announced the members of Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev's cabinet from December 30 through January 2. Among the key appointments, Nikolai Tanaev, a Russian, was named first deputy prime minister, replacing Boris Silaev, who resigned in November, and former National Security Minister Tashtemir Aitabaev assumed the post of interior minister. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliev, Defense Minister Esen Topoev, Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Kostyuk and Health Minister Tilek Meimanaliev retained their posts. Also, General Bolot Djanuzakov will head the reorganized National Security Service.

Some local analysts in Osh say that both Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities want to quickly eradicate unsanctioned Islamic activity before the crackdown comes under wider international scrutiny. Some foreign governments, including the United States, have branded the IMU as a terrorist organization, thus tacitly supporting regional military action against the Islamic fighters. But according to local analysts, Kyrgyz and Uzbek authorities remain concerned that if the insurgency drags on, the international community may begin to promote the notion of a negotiated settlement. Karimov's government, in particular, is steadfastly opposed to engaging the insurgents in peace talks.

Conversely, some local experts in the Ferghana Valley say that such negotiations are a likely aim of IMU leaders, adding that the IMU is hoping to gain power via the "Tajik peace talks scenario." The settlement that ended the 1992-97 Tajik civil war provided for the sharing of power between President Imomali Rakhmonov's government and the United Tajik Opposition, which is dominated by Islamic opposition leaders.

Alisher Khamidov is the director of the Osh Media Resource Center in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz Crackdown on Islamic Religious Groups Set to Continue in 2001

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