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Kazakstan: Minorities Concerned at Anti-Terror Moves

After the secret service warns of dangers posed by foreign Islamic militants, non-Kazak Muslims fear their communities will be stigmatised.
By Andrei Grishin

Members of Muslim ethnic minorities in Kazakstan have voiced fears that they could be made scapegoats as the government pursues its version of the “war on terror”.

 

All last week, the main newspapers and television news devoted a lot of space to warnings by Kazakstan’s National Security Committee, KNB, that Islamic groups now pose a major threat to the country.

 

Diaspora groups in Kazakstan were concerned when KNB deputy chairman Vladimir Bozhko named organisations associated with their ethnicity when he addressed a conference on terrorism and human rights on November 16. As well as al-Qaeda’s international network, Bozhko referred to groupings from diverse ethnic backgrounds – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, ethnic Uighur militants active in western China, Kurdish guerrillas operating in Turkey, and Chechens from the Russian Federation.

 

Five days earlier, Bozhko told a press conference that the KNB had broken up a group called the Mujahedin of Central Asia, arresting nine citizens of Kazakstan and four Uzbek nationals. He said the group was a “link” in the al-Qaeda network and was active in Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan,and Russia.

 

The Mujahedin of Central Asia are not well-documented as a group, but they are likely to be the same as the shadowy Islamic organisation blamed for three suicide attacks in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in July, as well as several days of fighting in the city in spring 2004.

 

On October 15, Kazakstan’s supreme court outlawed four specific groups as “terrorist organisations”: al-Qaeda, the IMU, the Kurdish National Congress (successor to the PKK insurgent group in Turkey), and an Uighur group, the East Turkestan Islamic Party. The court concluded that “there is a potential danger that these organisations may destabilise the situation in Central Asia”.

 

This was the first such judicial ruling in Kazakstan, which had previously stopped short of an explicit ban on radical groups, unlike the harder-line measures its neighbours Kyrgyzstan and especially Uzbekistan have taken.

 

Bozhko said the security problem involved both imported organisations and Kazakstan residents, and suggested that the tendency for different Sunni Muslim groups to worship separately was a source or symptom of radicalism. “There is an alarming trend where mosques appear which are organised by ethnicity - Uighur, Dungan [ethnic Chinese Muslims], Ingush and Chechen. Although there is only one God, one Allah, for some reason there are divisions according to ethnicity,” he said.

 

He noted that Kazakstan has extradited a number of alleged Chechen militants to Russia after they were found hiding out in the country.

 

Representatives of the Uighur and Kurdish minorities have expressed concern that they could be targeted by security forces pursuing the militant groups operating in their name.

 

That is a particular concern for the Uighurs, a community with a long history in Kazakstan. At the last count there were 210,000 of them in the country.

 

Since Kazakstan became independent in 1991 and developed growing diplomatic and trading links with Beijing, the Uighur diaspora has lived in fear that the government might target them in order to appease China, which has clamped down hard on Uighur secessionist and Islamist groups in its western province of Xinjiang.

 

In his November 16 remarks, Bozhko noted that 14 Uighurs alleged to belong to separatist groups have been arrested and extradited to China and Kyrgyzstan in the last six years. He warned that these might seek to “indoctrinate” Uighur residents of Kazakstan.

 

Alimjan Hamraev, who heads the Centre for Legal Aid Centre for Ethnic Minorities, dismissed the campaign against the East Turkestan Islamic Party, “Kazakstan should not have done this [outlaw the group]. Uighurs are a people who are close to the Kazaks. It hurts the feelings of an entire people, and causes them to feel a similar aversion.”

 

According to Hamraev, the East Turkestan Islamic Party is virtually defunct in Xinjiang, so it cannot be active in Kazakstan.

 

He concluded, “All this is only being done because of the international geopolitical situation, and to show that Kazakstan is part of the same coalition as the United States in the war on terrorism.”

 

The Kurdish population of Kazakstan is smaller, at around 30,000 people, and have lived far from the Middle East for decades. Stalin deported the community from the Caucasus during the Second World War.

 

Two years ago, Turkish media caused a stir by claiming that Kurdish-language schools in Kazakstan were handing out certificates carrying pictures of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader now in jail in Turkey.

 

KNB deputy chief Bozhko said the Kurdish National Congress, heir to the PKK, was active in the country. “We detect, arrest and extradite people who are wanted and involved in terrorist organisations,” he said, referring specifically to the Kurdish group.

 

Barbang, a Kurdish association in Kazakstan, is concerned that identifying the Kurdish National Congress as a local threat is “unjustified and casts aspersions on the Kurds of Kazakstan”.

 

Professor Mirzoev, who chairs the association, said, “The Kurdish diaspora in Kazakstan is angry about this decision, because such an organisation has never been present in Kazakstan, so it’s out of the question to ban a non-existent organisation.”

 

The KNB is now pressing for greater powers to pursue alleged terrorists, and is urging the newly elected parliament to rush through a new law on “extremist activity” and amended legislation on freedom of confession.

 

Human rights groups in Kazakstan are warning that tougher laws will restrict civil liberties and give the secret service far too much power.

 

Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, said the law on extremism contained a string of legal errors, and in any case was not needed because existing anti-terrorism legislation is adequate.

 

Ninel Fokina, the head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, voiced concern at the KNB’s expanding role.

 

“The KNB has been conducting a long and active campaign that will lead to it obtaining additional powers. Last summer, a campaign began to imprison active members of the [Islamic group] Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and the KNB has now succeeded in establishing a list of proscribed organisations and a law banning extremist activity,” she said.

 

“It is very sad and very alarming when the special services get into politics.”

 

Andrei Grishin is a staff member at the Kazakstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law.