Kyrgyzstan: Fury Over Imam Death

South seethes with anger after popular religious leader gunned down by security services.

Kyrgyzstan: Fury Over Imam Death

South seethes with anger after popular religious leader gunned down by security services.

Politicians and worshippers alike have condemned the killing of a popular religious leader in southern Kyrgyzstan and say they will fight to clear his name.



Muhammadrafik Kamalov, the imam of a mosque in the town of Karasuu near the Uzbek border, apparently died in an August 6 shootout between Kyrgyz security forces and two Tajik passengers in the car that he was driving.



Exactly what happened is unclear, but police initially claimed that Kamalov, an ethnic Uzbek, was working with the banned Islamic groups Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.



“The National Security Service [NSS] had long had information that Imam Kamalov was in contact with members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and members of the IMU,” Bakytbek Bekibaev, the head of the NSS in the Osh region, told journalists.



One NSS employee, on the condition of anonymity, said, “He was an active accomplice of extremists. Kamalov was with two rebels, who in response to the special services’ request to stop the car opened fire.”



But they soon backtracked, suggesting that he was an innocent victim. They claim the alleged Tajik militants, both of whom also died in the clash, had taken Kamalov hostage and used him as a human shield.



This did little to quell the fury in Karasuu where 5,000 worshippers gathered for his August 7 funeral - carrying his body through the town crying “Allahu Akbar”. They said Kamalov was an innocent victim of “state terror”. A Hizb-ut-Tahrir spokesperson in London described the imam’s death as murder.



“Imam Kamalov only preached goodness,” said Farhad Karimov, a worshipper at the mosque in Karasuu. “He was never a terrorist, and he never called for jihad. Several thousand worshippers believed him. With their clumsy actions, the authorities cast doubt on the entire life of our respected teacher. There is no limit to our anger, and we are prepared to do anything to restore justice.”



And that anger didn’t abate in the days that followed.



More than 700 people gathered in Karasuu’s central square on August 11 to continue the protest. Banners at the gathering, led by Kamalov’s son Rashot, read “We demand justice” and “Imam Kamalov was not a terrorist”.



Rashot is furious with the authorities over his father’s death, saying his good name has been tarnished by the allegation of terrorism.



“We are angry that faithful Muslims are called terrorists. The authorities are artificially aggravating the situation and not allowing us to live peacefully and believe in Allah. We demand that the information that Kamalov aided rebels is officially denied,” said Rashot.



Speculation is rife in the region that Central Asian leaders are largely exaggerating the threat from groups like the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir to justify political repression in their countries.



Although parliamentary deputy and leader of the opposition Asaba party Azimbek Beknazarov is among those who link the recent Kyrgyz crackdown on alleged extremists to a warming of relations with neighbouring Uzbekistan.



He points out the head of the Kyrgyz security service Bursumankul Tabaldiev and his Uzbek colleague Rustam Inoyatov signed an “anti-terrorist” alliance on July 25 promising greater cooperation between the two intelligence groups.



Beknazarov said Uzbek and Kyrgyz security forces have joined together to conduct “hundreds” of raids and arrested dozens of ethnic Uzbeks suspected of terrorist offences.



“There are numerous reports that the victims of these operations are completely innocent people, including popular imam Makhummadrafik Kamalov,” said Beknazarov, who was last year ousted from his job as Kyrgyz prosecutor after a high profile anti-corruption campaign.



“These actions increase anti-government feelings among ethnic Uzbeks in south Kyrgyzstan. Few believe the government’s explanations about the anti-terrorist nature of the operations. The special services do not give any believable evidence. Proper investigative actions are not carried out,” reads the statement from Beknazarov.



The Kyrgyzstan ombudsman, Tursunbai Bakir uulu, has also spoken out against the recent alliance between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek special forces.



“Recent events in south Kyrgyzstan make it easy to recognise the mark of the Uzbekistan special services: execution without a trial or investigation and the planting of weapons, drugs and religious literature on suspects,” he said.



“The same could be done to me. They will say that I was a supporter of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. If this happens, don’t believe it.”



Kamalov’s mosque had long been under surveillance by the authorities, perhaps because he allowed both moderate Muslims and members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir to pray there. One parliamentary deputy had previously accused the imam of turning the mosque into the headquarters of the banned group, which aims to set up a Muslim state in Central Asia. In May 2004, Kamalov caught two members of the Uzbek secret police and a Kyrgyz counterpart secretly videotaping a prayer service.



Oitalbek Osmonov of the NSS defended the force’s recent actions. “We work to uncover and prevent terrorist activity in Kyrgyzstan,” he told IWPR. “At present, three evils exist - terrorism, extremism and separatism. We are working against these.”



Kanat Tyukeev, the director of research at the independent Peaceful Asia Centre, agrees that religious extremism is a major concern, particularly in southern Kyrgyzstan. He worries that the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU - which formed in the Nineties with the goal of setting up an Islamic state in Uzbekistan and is now scattered around the region - could use the death of Kamalov to destabilise the situation in the south.



“The main threat today is the activity of religious extremist organisations, not only those involved with the IMU, but also autonomous groups which broke off from the IMU,” he said.



Taalaibek Amanov is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.
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