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

No Sign of Abducted Kyrgyz Mullah

Evidence suggests Uzbek secret service is continuing to abduct Kyrgyz nationals.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

Nearly a month after a Muslim preacher disappeared in the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Uzgen, police are no nearer finding either him or his abductors.

Interviews conducted by IWPR point strongly towards the security services in Uzbekistan, which have a past record of crossing into their neighbour’s territory to grab people they suspect of Islamic militancy, without consulting the Kyrgyz authorities.

Sadykjan Rahmanov, a Kyrgyz citizen who has worked as a mullah in Uzgen for the past decade, has not been seen since September 6. Several people have said they saw him being bundled into a car with Kyrgyz number plates and driven away. Police in Uzgen have begun an investigation and are treating the case as an abduction.

Local people are convinced that Rahmanov was kidnapped by Uzbek security agents. On September 20, about 200 people, including relatives and neighbours of the mullah, gathered outside the city mayor’s office to demand action, and complain about the failure of Kyrgyz police to make progress in finding out where he is.

Rahmanov has lived in Kyrgyzstan since 1993, organising trips for people who want to go on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy places of Islam in Saudi Arabia. It is unclear why the Uzbeks would want to question him, but it may relate to the time before 1993 when he spent some time in Namangan, an Uzbek city then a hotbed of Islamic activism. The Uzbek subsequently clamped down on the Islamic movement in Namangan and the rest of the Fergana valley, jailing many prayer leaders and members of their congregations.

Despite the accusations made by Rahmanov’s supporters, local police have made some progress on the case. They have discovered that the car that eyewitnesses said was used in the abduction was sold six months previously to a man from Namangan. They have identified him as a serving officer in Uzbekistan’s National Security Service, SNB. He bought the car from a local man, which explains why it had Kyrgyz plates.

However, they have had little success in following the leads into Uzbekistan. Uzgen police chief Rustam Mamedov told IWPR that his investigators traced the SNB man in Namangan, but he flatly refused to assist them. And, he says, it will be very hard to track down the lost mullah since Kyrgyz police have no jurisdiction to conduct an investigation outside their own country.

“Our officers visited Namangan region, but found nothing there,” said Mamedov’s deputy, Mamatali Turgunbaev. “Together with officers of Namangan’s police department, we have worked out several possible scenarios – but so far it has come to nothing.”

Turgunbaev says this is the first time someone has been abducted in Uzgen, “However, cases of kidnapping have often taken place in Osh city, which borders with Uzbekistan.”

Without further movement on the case, the evidence that Rahmanov was spirited away by Uzbek secret service men operating illegally in Kyrgyzstan will remain circumstantial. But if true, it would form part of a pattern of documented cases of this kind.

IWPR asked the Uzbek embassy in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek to comment on the allegations that security services make a habit of abducting Kyrgyz citizens. First secretary Ismail Sharapov replied that he was aware of the accusation from reading the Kyrgyz press, but had no information to offer about it.

Kyrgyz officials were far more prepared to discuss the problem. Bahodyr Ahmedov, an assistant to the Kyrgyz ombudsman’s representative in the southern region of Jalalabad, told IWPR that “most of the Kyrgyz citizens who have been kidnapped used to live and study religion in Uzbekistan some time ago. In the early Nineties, when the mass persecution of religious activists started there, they moved to Kyrgyzstan, but Uzbek security agents nab them here as well”.

As well as this earlier generation of Muslim activists, the Uzbek authorities have pursued members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned movement of more recent origin. Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Dooronbek Sadyrbaev told IWPR that 39 Kyrgyz citizens have been illegally seized and taken to Uzbekistan in Jalalabad region alone since 1998. They were all charged with working with Hizb-ut Tahrir.

Azimjan Askarov, a human rights activist in Bazarkorgon district, has been following these cases. He says the abductions have become almost routine, with Uzbek agents abducting people to charge them with religious extremism.

Askarov says there are 260 such people languishing in Uzbek jails and that as Kyrgyz nationals the fact that they should be sent to serve their sentence in their home country is simply ignored by the Uzbek authorities. In addition, he says, the Uzbeks pretend that the arrests were made inside Uzbekistan.

The activist has defended a number of these individuals when they went on trial in Uzbekistan. One case was that of Husiddin Sabirov, a Jalalabad resident who vanished in 1999. He reappeared in Uzbekistan, where a court convicted him on the basis of a signed confession – despite his claim that it was beaten out of him.

In another case involving a mullah, Yuldashbai Tursunbaev, was seized from his home village in 1999 and transported to Uzbek territory, where he was given a 20-year jail term in January 2000.

Islamic groups are a known target for the Uzbek authorities, but human rights activists in southern Kyrgyzstan fear that the net could spread to anyone who voices criticism of Uzbekistan. In July last year, local journalist Alisher Toksonbaev was arrested by Uzbek special services, who told him they were displeased with articles he had written about their country. They released him, but only after warning him that the next time they picked him up things would be different.

The apparent impunity with which Uzbek security services are operating outside their jurisdiction raises questions about why the Kyrgyz government has not tackled its opposite number about the issue.

A member of the Kyrgyz secret service, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR how unhappy he was with the situation. “They enjoy impunity to such an extent that they don’t even bother changing the number plates on their cars,” he said.

“Residents of southern Kyrgyzstan fear that one day they will end up on Tashkent’s black list as enemies of Uzbekistan and as criminals. We do not know whether [individual cases] really are criminals, but even supposing they were bloodthirsty killers, the actions of Uzbek special services are still illegal.”

There is, he said, a real credibility problem for Bishkek, “People might stop trusting us and believe that the government is incapable of protecting its own citizens.”

Human rights activist Abdunazar Mamatislamov is concerned that the Kyrgyz government is remaining silent out of fear of Uzbekistan, a much bigger and more powerful state. “Is it helplessness on the part of the government – or a reluctance to quarrel with a better-developed neighbour?” he asked.

Ulugbek Babakulov is human rights activist in Jalalabad, Asel Sagynbaeva is IWPR project coordinator in Bishkek.