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Tashkent Wants Islamic Group Blacklisted
The Uzbek government has been accused of exploiting the US-led "war on terrorism" to cover up human rights abuses.
Tashkent has requested that the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir be included on the international blacklist of extremist organisations drawn up by Washington following the September 11 attacks on America.
The authorities claim that the organisation is being used as a recruiting ground by Islamic militants outside the region.
But Central Asian analysts suspect that this move, which came at a regional security conference in the Uzbek capital last month, is an attempt to excuse Tashkent's suppression of Muslim radicals.
"They hope that this would justify the persecution and mass arrests of suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir members over the last four years," Saidjakhon Zainabitdinov of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan told IWPR.
Observers believe that the authorities may also feel free to continue their crackdown on banned religious organisations - and any other dissidents within the republic.
Uzbek foreign affairs representative Bakhtier Islomov told the conference that Hizb-ut-Tahrir had "spread its extremist activities in most Central Asian countries and is a threat to political order". However, when questioned by delegates, he was unable to prove its connection to any particular act of subversion.
The group, established in the Middle East 50 years ago, describes itself as a political party dedicated to the revival of Islamic life and the creation of a khaliphate system, first in Muslim countries, and then the rest of the world.
It first appeared in the former Soviet republics after they gained their independence in 1991, taking root in Uzbekistan's traditionally Islamic areas of Namangan, Fergana and Tashkent. Within a year, cells had been established in the Tajik border region of Sogdiy and some areas of Kyrgyzstan.
International human rights organisations in Uzbekistan claim that alleged Hizb-ut-Tahrir associates have received unfair trials and questionable convictions, and that the authorities often persecute their relatives.
One Uzbek political scientist, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that Tashkent is looking to take advantage of the international campaign against terror to get rid of the illegal party once and for all.
But conference organiser Professor Alisher Azizhodjaev - a former deputy prime minister and adviser to President Islam Karimov - told IWPR that the group posed a very real danger.
According to the Uzbek security services, many Hizb ut-Tahrir members join more widely known international extremist organisations after a couple of years' service in Central Asia.
His fears have been echoed by the Dushanbe authorities, who are cracking down on the activities of the Islamic radicals in Tajikistan. In the summer of 2002, Tajik deputy security minister Mukhtor Sharipov told the media that "indisputable evidence" had been found to link Hizb ut-Tahrir members operating in the country to the notorious al-Qaeda network.
The Kyrgyz authorities are more lenient towards the former than their counterparts in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, prosecuting only a handful of the four thousand or so members of the group.
Natalya Shadrova, deputy chairman of Krygyzstan's governmental commission on religious affairs, said most Kyrgyz believe that persecuting Hizb ut-Tahrir may make it more extreme.
She specifically warned of the dangers of blacklisting the group, saying this would only boost its stature among Muslims and attract more of them into its ranks.
Svante Cornell, publisher of the Central Asia Analyst journal and a professor at Washington's John Hopkins University, told IWPR that America's decision to include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on its blacklist had resulted in a huge increase in the group's exposure. "That is why I do not support the inclusion of Hizb ut-Tahrir on the blacklist, as this may lead to more youths joining their ranks," said Cornell.
Nargiz Zakirova is a journalist with Vecherny Dushanbe in Tajikistan
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