Kazak Islamists Under Pressure

Authorities cracking down on scattered groups they accuse of radicalism and subversion.

Kazak Islamists Under Pressure

Authorities cracking down on scattered groups they accuse of radicalism and subversion.

Supporters of an Islamic group in western Kazakstan say they are being persecuted by the authorities, while rights activists say those members who have fled abroad will be at risk if they are returned to the country.

Kazak government representatives suspect the Taza Din (Pure Faith) group of holding extremist views and see them as a potential risk.

Some 200 adherents of Taza Din have sought refuge in the Czech Republic in recent years, but most have failed to win permanent sanctuary in European states. Human rights advocates say they would be at risk if they were returned to Kazakstan.

In a report on February 18, the Prague-based RFE/RL radio said that apart from a few who had won the right to remain, the asylum-seekers in the Czech Republic remained at real risk of deportation. It said they were concerned that the deportation of one man, Margulan Muhambetov, in October 2009, might have been a “trial run” for more extensive repatriations.

RFE/RL noted that of three families who fled to Slovenia, one was finally granted asylum in December.

Although Sunni Muslims like most other Kazaks, members of the Taza Din group say they are following the true tenets of Islam, and therefore, and keep themselves apart from Kazakstan’s religious establishment, the Spiritual Directorate or Muftiate, and do not pray in the mosques it controls.

Members of the Taza Din group are described by others as Salafis, a fundamentalist strand of Sunni Islam, but although they share some features of this group, which in Central Asia is present in Tajikistan, they do not use the name themselves. Most come from western parts of the country, in Atyrau and Mangistau regions.

IWPR interviewed Alikhan, a Taza Din adherent who withheld his second name for security reasons, who said the group was being targeted merely because it maintained independence from official Islamic structures. The state labels anything it does not control as illegal, he said, and that extends to religion as well.

“The official religious organisations effectively purvey the state ideology, in other words the authorities are manipulating us,” he said. “That goes against our religion, That’s the reason why the pure faith has emerged as an opposition in Kazakstan. But we are peaceable; we’re not competing with anyone.”

Vitaly Ponomarev, Central Asia programme director at the Moscow-based rights group Memorial, says Taza Din members have good reason to fear the Kazak authorities.

A series of recent trials of alleged Islamic fundamentalists have gone largely unnoticed outside Kazakstan.

Last September, six members of another informal group in Aktobe region, in west-central Kazakstan, were convicted of “planning an act of terrorism”. The alleged ringleader, Azamat Karimbaev, who received a sentence of 17 years, died in prison in December. His widow Ayman told RFE/RL her husband had merely organised the construction of a mosque for the village where they lived.

On February 12, a court in the capital Astana, upheld the November conviction of two more men on terrorist charges. The two had been extradited from Russia.

Also in September, Serikbay Latipullaev, a businessman who played a leading role in the Taza Din group, was jailed for three years after being convicted of a weapons offence and possession of drugs. Relatives say the charges are complete fabrications, and Latipullaev was really imprisoned for his faith.

“In 2003, Serikbay built a mosque with his own money. He gathered many righteous Muslims around him,” said Sharipolla Saifullin, a relative of the convicted man. “We aren’t extremists and we aren’t religious radicals. We are peaceful Muslims and we follow the faith of our fathers, the pure faith.”

Other family members are reluctant to speak out about the case, for fear of getting into more trouble.

“Latipullaev has decided not to contest the verdict and to do his three years in prison,” said a lawyer on his defence team, who asked not to be named. “He has the right to release on parole. If he’s lucky, he’ll be out in a year’s time.”

In 1996, around 200 Taza Din adherents from Atyrau and Mangystau filed applications for political asylum in the Czech Republic on the grounds that they were being persecuted at home. To date, virtually all their applications have been unsuccessful, apart from a handful who arrived at the beginning.

The refugees say their cases are being handled unfairly by the Czech authorities, and last February they held a demonstration in the centre of Prague to demand more humane treatment.

Yerjan Dosmuhammedov, a London-based human rights from Kazakstan, accuses the Czech Republic of falling down on its obligations under international conventions requiring it to treat asylum-seekers compassionately.

He believes the Czech authorities should make public the terms of the agreement under which Muhambetov was deported in October.

“This individual was a political refugee. Under the terms of international law, he should not have been handed over to the custody of an undemocratic regime,” said Dosmuhammedov.

When Muhambetov arrived at Almaty airport, he disappeared and has not been heard of since. IWPR has not been able to ascertain whether he was detained or simply went underground.

Dayanat Yerdeshev fled Kazakstan with his family more recently than the other exiles, after telling local journalists his wife had been assaulted in their home at the end of August.

His wife could not identify her two assailants, but Yerdeshev was sure they were plainclothes security officers.

Azamat Maytanov, a local reporter who followed the story, said, “Yerdeshev told me the incident with his wife happened a few days after he was interrogated at the district office of the Committee for National Security. He said when his wife was assaulted, they threatened to put her in prison, and that they had a file on all the members of the family…. So he fled to Europe. It isn’t clear where he went; all contact with him has been lost.”

Marat Shambilov, the police commander in charge of countering religious extremism for the Kurmangazi district where the Yerdeshovs live, denied that his men had assaulted the woman. He would not comment further on the case, saying he had no authorisation to do so.

The authorities in Kazakstan insist Taza Din has no right to exist in its present, unrecognised state. Nadezhda Golubir, head of the religious affairs department at the justice ministry’s office in West Kazakstan region, says all faith groups have to obtain official registration before they can operate legally.

“A religious organisation that avoids registering and pursues its activities underground is outside the law. Tough action is taken to stop it operating,” she said.

Political scientist Andrei Chebotarev says the authorities and especially law-enforcement agencies have a habit of picking on faith groups operating outside the mainstream – which in Kazakstan means anyone apart from the official Islamic structures and the Russian Orthodox Church.

“They may be trying to build up a portrait of a new enemy. in the shape of the so-called Salafis,” he said.

Artur Nigmetov is a journalist in Uralsk, western Kazakstan.

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