Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Crackdown on Islamic Party

Hizb-ut-Tahrir faces a bleak future as Kazakstan follows its Central Asian neighbours down the road of banning the Islamic group.
By IWPR Central Asia

Until recently, Kazakstan was one of the last places in Central Asia where supporters of the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir could operate with relative freedom.


But that looks set to change, following a recent police crackdown which resulted in the arrest of about 50 party members, and a bill just passed on extremist organisations that could see Hizb-ut-Tahrir outlawed altogether.


Already banned in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the group had based its overt operations in Kazakstan and had recently stepped up its leafleting activities in an ill-fated public relations effort to convince people that it does not support extremism.


Most of the literature is highly anti-American and was critical of China – which has a Muslim population in the west – and especially Uzbekistan.


Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose name means the “party of liberation”, originated in the Middle East in the Fifties but first appeared in Central Asia in the mid-Nineties, campaigning against the government of Uzbek president Islam Karimov.


Hizb-ut-Tahrir wants to see secular governments replaced by a caliphate modelled on the early Islamic state, but its literature has always stressed that regime change can only take place by non-violent means.


That is not a claim the Uzbek authorities believe, and they have arrested thousands of the group’s members in recent years. But even this has failed to stamp Hizb-ut-Tahrir out, and while it has spread to neighbouring republics, it reserves its most hostile rhetoric for the Tashkent regime in Tashkent.


“I don’t think that this organisation sees Kazakstan as the goal of its activity,” said Sanat Kushkumbaev, a Kazak political scientist. “It is directed mainly at Uzbekistan.”


The Kazak authorities have grown increasingly concerned at the growth of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and have recently begun cracking down. Pressure from Tashkent may also have played a role: the Uzbeks have claimed that the Islamic radicals behind a bout of violence in spring last year and three suicide bombings in July had links to Kazakstan. It is not certain that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was the group involved.


In the South Kazakstan region alone, 39 criminal cases were opened against party members in 2004, three times more than during the previous year, according to the prosecutor’s office.


On January 21 this year, around 40 people demanding freedom for Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist Vadim Berestov, who had just been jailed for one year, were themselves arrested while protesting outside the main mosque in Almaty.


One week later, nine members were detained in what looked like a coordinated police swoops at four mosques in Shymkent and Kentau. Both these towns are in the South Kazakstan region, where Hizb-ut-Tahrir is particularly active because of the proximity of Uzbekistan.


Police announced on February 8 that a Hizb-ut-Tahrir printing press had been found in an Almaty apartment and more than 12,000 leaflets seized.


“Why have the police started treating us so harshly?” asked 27-year-old Serik, who joined the group in 2003 after graduating from university in Shymkent. “We bring nothing but love for Allah.”


Kazak experts interviewed by IWPR suggest that Hizb-ut-Tahrir poses little threat to the country.


“This party will never get a strong hold over the masses,” said Maksut Sarsenov from the Association of Sociologists and Politicians of Kazakstan. “It is not a terrorist organisation. It functions legally in civilised Europe.”


Analysts believe pressure exerted by the Uzbek president continues to shape Kazak policy – Karimov has twice this year called on his neighbours to crack down on the radical group.


“He would like to see his own tough actions against Hizb-ut-Tahrir being accompanied by similar actions [in] our country,” said Nikolai Kuzmin, an analyst at the Research Centre for Communication Technologies. “In Uzbekistan, members of this organisation are behind bars. We do not have that here. It is understandable that Karimov sees this state of affairs in quite a negative light.”


Hizb-ut-Tahrir never sought to register with the justice bodies in Kazakstan, which meant that it did not count as legal, though it was not proscribed. A Shymkent lawyer who asked to remain anonymous said the law clearly states that religious bodies do not have to register with the authorities, adding, “there are times when individual legislative acts of this country contradict each other”.


In the past, Hizb-ut-Tahrir supporters in Kazakstan have been charged with illegal public assembly, distributing leaflets, and inciting religious strife.


Now life is going to get much tougher for the group, as the new legislation will criminalise the very act of joining the party. The bill – called “resisting extremist activity” - was passed in parliament on February 9, and now awaits President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s signature.


Before the bill went through parliament, Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaders were already rattled by the arrests. They reacted by appealing to the official head of the Muslim clergy in the country, Mufti Absattar-kajy Derbesali, for protection. The mainstream clerical organisation, which maintains good relations with the government, is suspicious of what appears to be an upstart organisation imported from abroad, voicing unorthodox views, and operating outside the official mosques.


“Since the beginning of 2004 to January 2005, more than 100 Muslims of Kazakstan have been imprisoned for advocating Islam. Around 20 innocent Muslims are in jail… Our brothers should be free,” said the appeal, which went on to ask the clerical leadership to take Hizb-ut-Tahrir “under its wing”.


Political scientist Igor Savin suggested that excessive pressure on Hizb-ut-Tahrir could prove counterproductive, promopting the group to split in two factions – with half striving for legitimacy and the other going underground replacing the stated peace-loving policies with aggression


“Their appeal is simply an attempt to increase their own status in the eyes of Kazakstan Muslims. It seems that Hizb-ut-Tahrir wants to change its tactics of political battle, since the country’s authorities have taken a harsh stand towards them.”


Daur Dosybiev is an independent journalist in Shymkent. Eduard Poletaev is IWPR director in Kazakstan. Inna Lyudva, an assistant with IWPR in Kazakstan, contributed to the report.