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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[14.04.23] Islamic Radical Group Intensifies Underground Activity in Kyrgyzstan

Islamic radicals belonging to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement in Kyrgyzstan are expanding and intensifying underground anti-government agitation, seeking to capitalize on widespread opposition to the US military action in Iraq. Kyrgyz media report that Hizb activists are "systematically more critical of the secular principles of the state system."
Southern Kyrgyz regions v including Osh and Jalal-Abad, which have large numbers of ethnic Uzbek residents v have traditionally been strongholds of Hizb support. However, in recent weeks, Hizb propaganda material has been heavily distributed in cities in northern Kyrgyzstan, including the capital, the Vecherny Bishkek newspaper reported April 12. Hizb leaflets have also been found for the first time in villages in the Issyk-Kul region.
Kyrgyz law-enforcement officials report a surge in Hizb leafleting. In addition to distributing materials by hand, Hizb activists are operating late at night, pasting leaflets to lampposts and in public places, according to the Vecherny Bishkek report.
The messages contained in the leaflets are confrontational in their tone. "Let's rebel against the faithless," urged one. Others contain strong anti-American messages. "The war that [US President George] Bush started is a colonial war aimed at achieving hegemony and control, imposing influence and reshaping the region according to the new American standards," another leaflet said.
Kyrgyz law-enforcement authorities have responded with a series of raids on the houses of suspected party members. In Osh, for example, authorities arrested nine local residents in early April for allegedly distributing Hizb material, according to an Oshmedia.kg report. At least three men have also been arrested in Bishkek. All the detainees are being accused of violating either Article 297 or 299 of the country's criminal code, which forbid efforts to bring about "the forcible change of the constitutional system," and attempts to "foment national, racial and religious enmity."
In the Osh Region, law enforcement officers are conducting surveillance on more than 700 individuals suspected for links with the party, added Jenish Ashirbaev, a spokesman for the regional police department.
Relatives of those recently detained insist their loved ones have done nothing to violate Kyrgyz laws. "My son was not arrested for distribution of leaflets. He was arrested because someone reported on him," Aista Kochkorova, the mother of a detainee, told journalists in Osh.
Batyr Toktobaev, an Osh-based analyst, linked the growing support for Hizb with the US military presence in Iraq. Toktobaev expressed concern that Hizb's aggressive rhetoric could fuel inter-ethnic tension between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. "Because the party [Hizb] calls for struggle with unbelievers, this may negatively impact ethnic relations in the region," said Toktobaev. Local observers note that because of the nomadic roots of Kyrgyz, they tend to take a less formal approach to Islam than do Uzbeks. According to official figures, 92 percent of Hizb activists are Uzbek.
The rise in Hizb activity has been accompanied by an increase in public protests over the crackdown carried out by state security agencies. For example, about 25 local women in the southern town Kara-su staged a protest over the early April arrests in Osh. Many of the protesters were unemployed women, whose husbands, brothers or fathers were among those detained. They also protested against the US-led campaign in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein's government. Authorities dispersed the Kara-su crowd without violence, but according to observers, tension remains high. Some of the protesting women attempted to physically abuse police officers.
Some political analysts in southern Kyrgyzstan say a government clampdown on individual liberties is fueling support for Hizb. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The shrinking space for political dissent is channeling popular frustration into Islamic radicalism. Tursunbai Baakir Uulu, Kyrgyzstan's first Ombudsman, recently claimed that the movement doesn't represent a threat to Kyrgyz security. Meanwhile, Edil Baisallov, president of the Coalition of NGOs, has suggested that officials are exaggerating the Hizb threat in order to justify the restriction of individual rights, and to extract more support from donor nations.
An indicator of the growing distrust in the south for the government is the fact that a growing number of residents are seeking alternative information sources. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV channel, has quickly attracted a loyal following among those who can understand some Arabic. Kahramonv Nabiev, an Osh resident, told Oshmedia.kg, "I started to watch Al-Jazeera. It presents a view of what's happening in Iraq completely different from ORT [Russian Public Channel] and KTR [Kyrgyz Teleradio Company]."
Local observers say public support for Hizb is fickle, and could quickly wane with the passing of the Iraqi crisis. According to Osh-based journalists, the problems described in Hizb leaflets often appear detached from the day-to-day struggles encountered by many citizens. "If plants and factories worked in the South, the party [Hizb] would not have such popularity," said Toktobaev.
By Alisher Khamidov, Eurasianet, April 14, 2003

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