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

Kyrgyzstan: Hunting the Islamists

Is ban on "terrorist" groups a justifiable reaction to a real threat, or a sop to the superpowers?
By Leila Saralaeva

The Kyrgyz authorities have been accused of pandering to the United States, China and Russia by issuing a ban on radical Islamic groups. Government spokesmen defended the move, saying these organisations pose an increasing security threat inside the country.


The ban, issued by Kyrgyzstan's supreme court and announced by prosecution services at a press conference on November 20, names four groups - Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Party of Turkestan, the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation and the East Turkestan Islamic Party - all of which are suspected of ties with "international terrorist organisations".


Of the four organisations, the first two operate within the Central Asian republics, with Uzbekistan their primary focus. The Islamic Party of Turkestan is better known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. The others are among a number of groups claiming to act for the Uighur people of Xinjiang province in western China.


None of these groups was legal in Kyrgyzstan previously, but the supreme court has now given a green light to the security forces to stamp out what it says is their "illegal activity".


A spokesman for the Kyrgyz interior ministry told IWPR that the court ruling was needed to underpin police efforts to deal with these groups. "Kyrgyzstan previously had no law or court ruling declaring the activity of these organisations illegal and unconstitutional," said Bakyt Jumaev, the ministry's head of public relations.


"Some politicians and human rights activists got involved in the debate, and said that we, the law-enforcement agencies, were taking preventive action against them illegally, thus violating their rights. Now everything is legal, and there is also a proposal to toughen the sanctions under article 299 of the Kyrgyz criminal code dealing with 'manifestations of religious animosity'."


Natalia Shadrova, representing the state commission for religious affairs, part of the Kyrgyz government, said, "The state is obliged to protect its people and society from the encroachment of various dangerous groups."


But some human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan believe the ban had less to do with the threat posed by these organisations than with the government's desire to please powerful states that now carry a lot of weight in the country. The United States and Russia both have military bases there, while next-door-neighbour China has growing economic and political influence.


"Kyrgyzstan has been forced to take this measure to carry out the orders of the United States, Russia and other world powers, which want to justify their bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military operations in Chechnya, and which attempt to slander Islam and charge its followers with extremism," said human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov.


Abdumalik Sharipov, who advises the human rights group Spravedlivost on ethnic and religious matters, was clear why two Uighur groups were included on the list. "Uighur organisations have almost no links with Kyrgyzstan. They have their own interests in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. But the Kyrgyzstan government wants to do China a favour," he said.


Bakyt Osmonaliev, the head of administration in the prosecutor general's office, told IWPR that the decision to ban the groups was taken only after they had been identified as responsible for several attacks.


To back up their case, prosecutors cited the ongoing trial of five people alleged to be IMU members. They are accused of causing explosions at a popular market in the capital Bishkek in December 2002, and at a bank in Osh in March this year. The trial is taking place at a military court with no outside observers.


IMU guerrillas mounted incursions into Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory in 1999-2000, but the group was dealt a serious blow by the defeat of its Taleban allies in late 2001. Many members were killed or captured when the town of Kunduz fell to United States-led coalition forces, and little has been heard from the IMU since.


Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group of Middle Eastern origin, became active in Central Asia in the mid-Nineties. Once again, its major growth area was Uzbekistan, where the relationship between the government and Islamic opposition groups is worst. Hizb-ut-Tahrir professes Islamic fundamentalist ideas but has always said it rejects violence.


In Kyrgyzstan, where the group has spread after initially taking root among ethnic Uzbeks in the south, the authorities have been more tolerant than in Uzbekistan, where courts hand out long jail terms just for possessing Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets. But Kyrgyz officials have recently become increasingly jumpy, accusing the group of fomenting instability.


At the beginning of November, security services arrested three alleged Hizb-ut-Tahrir members on suspicion of planning an attack on an airbase near Bishkek, used by American-led coalition forces. Critics of the government were sceptical of the way it presented such an apparently open-and-shut case.


When IWPR approached Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the only group with an identifiable, if covert, presence in the country, a representative said, "The West has been fighting [us]for a long time and cannot do anything. If their plans had been successful, Hizb-ut-Tahrir would not have developed to this extent."


The Kyrgyz authorities have blamed radical Uighur groups for a string of attacks and murders carried out since 1998, although some of these are believed to have been the work of organised criminals. In the most serious attack, a busload of 19 Chinese citizens were killed while travelling from Bishkek to Xinjiang. The pro-government newspaper Vecherny Bishkek called the incident the work of a certain "Uighur organisation". Again, there was some concern about the rapidity with which this semi-official conclusion was reached.


Uighur nationalists, who want to create an independent Xinjiang, have been active for many years, and the Chinese authorities used to be roundly criticised in the West for the repressive tactics they employed here, as in Tibet. But the gradual emergence of an Islamic tendency in the province, and especially the United States' reaction to the September 11 attack on New York and Washington, has allowed Beijing to find common cause with America, Russia, and the Central Asian republics on the need to fight "Islamic terrorism".


Washington has reciprocated by designating the East Turkestan Islamic Party (under the name the East Turkistan Islamic Movement) a terrorist organisation, just as it had earlier done with the IMU.


As their names suggest, the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation represents the older secessionist trend, while the East Turkestan Islamic Party's radicalism is religious in tone. There have been few reports of covert activity by either group in Kyrgyzstan.


The republic has a significant Uighur diaspora, and there is a lively interchange across the border involving small-time traders who are often Chinese-national Uighurs. Representatives of the Uighur community have told IWPR that they feel increasingly vulnerable, fearing they could become pawns in the game of high politics played between Bishkek and Beijing.


Observers such as Amnesty International report that China has been pressuring its neighbours in Central Asia to clamp down on groups that advocate independence for Xinjiang, by branding them terrorists and arresting or extraditing them.


Abdul Bakiev, a diaspora representative, said he thinks the latest ruling is a result of a meeting which Chinese and Kyrgyz prosecutors held this summer. "China is now very interested in demonstrating to the international community that Uighur terrorist organisations exist, so that the international community closes its eyes to human rights violations in China," he said.


While Uighurs fear they may be unjustly targeted by the new rules, Hizb-ut-Tahrir members gave a robust response to it. Asked how the court decision would affected their daily lives, they told IWPR that such tough measures would only serve to unite their ranks - and that this in turn would hasten the establishment of the caliphate, the ideal Islamic state they seek as a replacement for current governments. If that is an accurate reflection of the mood, the supreme court ruling may prove less productive than the previous more tolerant line the authorities have taken.


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek. Ulugbek Babakulov is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.