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Tajikistan: Concern at New Islamic Group

Despite keeping a watchful eye on Islamic groups, officials say they failed to notice a radical organisation until the killing of a Christian preacher.
By Zafar Abdullaev

The emergence of a previously unknown radical Islamic group in Tajikistan, which the authorities accuse of murder and other crimes, is symptomatic of the government's failure to address major social and religious concerns, analysts say.


The Tajik prosecutor's office announced on April 12 that police had arrested 20 people in the Isfara district of northern Tajikistan on charges relating to serious crimes, including the murder of a local Christian preacher earlier this year. The suspects offered armed resistance before being captured, the prosecutor's office said, and weapons were subsequently found in their homes.


All 20 are alleged to have been members of an Islamic group called Bayat - "pledge" in Arabic - rather than either of two better-known outlawed organisations known to have operated in the region, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. Nor is there a known link to the Islamic Revival Party, IRP, a legal political party in Tajikistan.


Tajik security forces admit they have only just found out about the existence of Bayat, but say they believe some of its members were formerly in Afghanistan fighting on the side of the Taleban militia. They think some were captured by US forces in late 2001, and are being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.


Security forces also believe Bayat may have links with the IMU, a guerrilla group active in this part of the Fergana valley in past years, which was also a Taleban ally.


Until evidence to the contrary appears, the signs are that Bayat is specific to Isfara, and in particular the small town of Chorkuh, where Islam is unusually strong - women here are commonly seen wearing hejab rather than traditional Tajik dress. The IRP did well in the area in the 2000 parliamentary election, and the clandestine Hizb-ut-Tahrir has also been active.


In a July 2002 speech expressing concern about Islamic activism in Isfara, President Imomali Rahmonov said three men from the district were being detained in Guantanamo Bay. After his speech, the authorities clamped down by closing a third of some 150 mosques operating in Isfara district, and withdrawing official recognition from a number of imams or prayer-leaders.


The IRP complained about these actions, saying they were a deliberate attempt to weaken its legitimate political support.


The government has also been acting against the illegal Hizb-ut-Tahrir, arresting and jailing members in northern Tajikistan. But it appears to have missed the rise of Bayat.


According to accounts from sources in the security services, Bayat has pursued a particularly radical agenda. Sources in the prosecutor office told IWPR that the group started out with the aim of providing informal security guards for local mosques and shrines. But they then began attacking and setting fire to other mosques whose leaders, they believed, were stooges for the Tajik government.


The most serious accusation against the suspects is that they were behind the killing of Baptist pastor Sergei Bessarab, who was shot dead as he was praying on January 12.


Despite the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia, attacks on Christians have been rare, in part because most belong to the Russian Orthodox church, which does not seek to convert Muslim Central Asians. However, smaller Protestant groups such as the Baptists cause more unease by their active proselytising.


Analysts in Tajikistan say the government has badly mishandled the perceived threat from Islamic groups, using heavy-handed methods which only encourage fresh recruits, and failing to address the social and economic roots of the discontent which feeds radicalism in the impoverished Fergana valley region.


Independent political scientist Tursun Kabirov believes the authorities are misusing the issue for their own political ends. "Under the pretext of fighting extremist organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Bayat, the law-enforcement agencies frequently arrest innocent religious figures, the imam-katibs of mosques, and opposition figures who they don't like," he told IWPR.


"This only increases the tension in society, and allows extremists to replenish their ranks."


Rashid Ghani, another political scientist, says new radical Islamic organisations will emerge again and again because Central Asian governments have done so little to improve living standards or allow moderate Islam to operate freely. He cites as a classic example the growth of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which first appeared in Uzbekistan in the mid-Nineties but has since spread to neighbouring Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan.


At the same time, Ghani believes the presence of proselytising religious groups that many regard as an alien influence has helped fuel local anger. "Organisations like Bayat appear when there is fertile ground for them - for example, when the authorities are relaxed about registering non-Muslim missions and religions, yet they create obstacles for traditional Muslim organisations. In this kind of situation, of course there will be retaliation," he said.


Since the initial news of the arrests, the authorities have remained tight-lipped about Bayat, apparently reluctant to discuss its implications any further.


When a group of journalists working for foreign radio stations made enquiries about the case, deputy chief prosecutor Abdusam Dodoboev refused to answer, saying, "Write what you want, but we won't give you any information."


Some journalists believe that the authorities are deliberately downplaying the case, citing a statement from the prosecutor's office that Bayat was neither a political nor a religious organisation. "It's just a group of hooligans who have no political motives," said the statement.


Zafar Abdullaev is director of the Avesta news agency.


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