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Tashkent Cracks Down on Islamists

Courts in Uzbekistan charge Islamists with links to Bin Laden
By IWPR

Nine members of a banned religious organisation in Uzbekistan have been found guilty of having connections with the alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.


Courts in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, last week convicted the defendants with belonging to the illegal Islamic party Khizb-ut-Takhrir and handed down sentences of nine to 12 years, to be served in a high security prison.


But for the first time, in addition to the usual charges of undermining the constitution and membership of a forbidden organisation, they were also charged with connection to Bin Laden. Khizb-ut-Takhrir, which means Freedom party in Arabic, was founded in the 1950s by a Palestinian. The first units appeared in Uzbekistan in the late 1980s and it is believed to have about 10,700 active supporters in the country. It calls for an Islamic state in Uzbekistan based on Sharia law and the union of all Muslim countries into a single Caliphate.


The group's programme is utterly at odds with the secular and highly authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan, run largely by men who grew up under the old Soviet communist system. In March last year, the group's leader, Khafigullo Nasyrov, was given a 20 year jail sentence.


Reading out the verdict, the judge in Tashkent declared the nine defendants guilty of having connections with Bin Laden but did not present any evidence of such links.


As a result, both the nature of the defendants' connection to Bin Laden and how it was established remained a mystery for their relatives, as well as journalists and independent observers.


Following the September 11 attacks in the US, local human rights activists fear the law-enforcement and judicial authorities in Uzbekistan are trying to categorise all religious activists as terrorists and discredit their cause at home and abroad by linking them to the world's most notorious terrorist leader.


The chairman of the Independent Human Rights Organisation in Uzbekistan, IHROU, Mikhail Ardzinov, said charging members of Khizb-ut-Takhrir with connections to Bin Laden sets a dangerous new precedent.


During the last two years, Uzbekistan has been the target of serious criticism from several international human rights organisations and Western countries, particularly the US, for violations of human rights and the mass conviction of members of religious organisations.


This week campaigning organisation Human Rights Watch urged the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to exercise caution in dealing with Uzbekistan, in spite of the fact that Tashkent is now a key ally in the US-led military campaign against the Taleban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan.


Ardzinov said the police and judiciary in Uzbekistan aimed to establish a link between Khizb-ut-Takhrir and Bin Laden to promote the idea in the international community that the Uzbek government is battling against world terrorism. This would then justify both the severe sentences they impose on religious activists and their unlawful methods of investigation.


During the trial, Nurullo Majidov, the defendant presented as the leader of the group, declared he had no connections to, or contacts with the prime suspect in the US terrorist outrages. "We do not have connections to Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist organisations, as we pursue different methods of struggle," he said. "We are fighting for our ideas through peaceful means."


Majidov said Khizb-ut-Takhrir confined its work to agitation and propaganda.


During the trial, the defendants claimed repeatedly that the police used unlawful methods of investigation, including physical torture and psychological pressure. The defendants said this was why they confessed to the accusations.


The parents of the defendants insisted it was absurd to link their children to Bin Laden's network. The mother of one, Ravshan Pulatov, said, "There is no connection between my son and Osama bin Laden whatsoever. He is a simple fellow, as all other fellows who sit in the dock. This is simply absurd."


The Uzbek government has cracked down hard on domestic Islamist groups since a series of explosions rocked Tashkent in February 1999. Islamic extremists were blamed for the blast which killed at least 16 people. Before the explosions there were only a few dozen members of Khizb-ut-Takhrir in detention, but their number increased to more than 7,000 by the middle of this year, human rights group say.


The nervousness of the authorities towards religious groups has been heightened by their ongoing war, in the southern border region, with an Islamic insurgency movement, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which is incontrovertibly linked to the Taleban and was held responsible for the bomb attacks in Tashkent. The IMU leaders, Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, are close confidantes of Bin Laden and maintain a considerable presence in his Afghan training camps.


By Said Khojaev is a pseudonym for a journalist in Uzbekistan