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

Kyrgyzstan: Islamic Group Controversy

Human rights organisations are unconvinced by government claims that Hizb ut-Tahrir is preparing to fight for Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

The Kyrgyz authorities' allegation that the banned Islamic organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir, actively supports Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is being seen as an excuse for yet another crackdown on its members.


Seventeen members of the outlawed group have been arrested and accused of distributing leaflets calling for a jihad against the United States and its citizens over the current war - in spite of the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrirhas repeatedly spoken out against Saddam's regime.


The republic's interior ministry has confirmed that ten suspected members of the organisation were arrested in the southern Osh region at the beginning of the month. A spokesperson told IWPR that those detained had been carrying leaflets calling for a "struggle against the infidels".


This is the second swoop on members of the banned group since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Seven alleged members were arrested in Jalalabad, also in the south of the republic, at the end of March.


Human rights activists and international non-governmental organisations, NGOs, have expressed uneasiness over the authorities' attitude toward Hizb ut-Tahrir. The World Organisation Against Torture, OMCT, released a statement on March 31 in which it called on the government to stop persecuting group members, and to guarantee freedom of religion for its citizens.


It also accused the authorities of justifying their human rights abuses by falsely portraying the organisation as a violent extremist group that threatens the security of the country.


OMCT has also voiced concern over various reports it claims to have received from Kyrgyzstan, in which Hizb ut-Tahrirmembers were allegedly threatened with torture during their detention.


Rumours of a campaign Hizb ut-Tahrirbegan to circulate in Kyrgyzstan on the eve of the US attack on Iraq. The pro-government newspaper, Vecherny Bishkek, carried an article headlined "Tolerance of radicalism" on March 11, and the authorities' crackdown followed soon after.


Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev was later quoted by the Akipress news agency as saying that the war in Iraq would cause religious extremists to become more active in Kyrgyzstan.


Tensions rose further on March 21, when law enforcement bodies claimed that they had received an anonymous phone call during the Nooruz (new year) celebrations. The caller said that if President Askar Akaev did not appear on state television within an hour and denounce the US and United Kingdom for their aggression against Iraq, a bomb would be detonated in a Kyrgyz-Turkish college in Jalalabad.


The president did not appear on television, and no explosive devices were found in the building. But on the following day, law-enforcement bodies began a "hunt" for the members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, leading to the arrest of seven people on March 22 and 23.


However, police later admitted that they had been unable to identify the caller - leading many Jalalabad journalists and human rights activists to dismiss the incident as an act of "provocation" by the authorities.


"It's strange that the story of the phone call and the search for explosives in the college building was first reported by a pro-government newspaper," said Jalalabad journalist Jalil Saparov, who believes that the threat posed by the banned group is being blown out of proportion by the authorities.


Hizb ut-Tahrirmembers admit that they distributed leaflets in the south of the republic on March 28, in which they called on Muslims to protest against the war. "But this does not mean that we are defending Saddam Hussein," said Abdulatip, the head of one Hizb ut-Tahrircell.


"In Iraq, completely innocent Muslims are suffering. We hate [US president George W] Bush, [British prime minister Tony] Blair and Saddam Hussein equally," he stressed.


At the beginning of the war, various television channels broadcast Saddam Hussein's speech in which he called on the Islamic world to unite against western aggression, and declared a jihad.


Several Kyrgyz information agencies later reported that as many as 1,000 southern-based Hizb ut-Tahrirmembers could be preparing to travel to Iraq to join the fight against the US troops.


"Nothing like this is happening, and cannot happen," said Hizb ut-Tahrirmember Abdulatip. "Of course, if we had the opportunity, perhaps some of us would go there. We would fight for the liberation of Islamic land. But at the present time this is simply unrealistic."


Abdumalik Sharipov, who reports on ethnic and religious conflicts for the human rights NGO Spravedlivost (Justice), told IWPR that reports on Hizb ut-Tahrirmembers preparing to fight in Iraq had been fabricated.


"These claims are being made by people who are unfamiliar with the ideology of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. If it is not an act of provocation by individual journalists, then such statements are clearly made out of ignorance," he said.


"Such statements were made during the US Afghan campaign, and even though the coalition based some of its forces in Kyrgyzstan, there was no increase in Hizb ut-Tahriractivity at all. The group's programme allows for a total jihad to spread the faith only after the creation of an Islamic state."


Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist in Jalalabad