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

Uzbek Rebel Amnesty

The Uzbek president has handed what some believe to be a long overdue olive branch to Islamic rebels.
By Galima Bukkharbaeva

In recent weeks, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has issued two amnesties. The first - for those already serving sentences - was expected. The second was not. Under this surprising decree, members of militant organisations beyond Uzbekistan's borders can return home without fear of prosecution.


The decree was mostly targeted at members of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, a religious movement calling for a return to Islamic principles. Thought to be funded by Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire blamed by the US for several bomb attacks, the IMU rebels live outside the country but have been making regular incursions into Uzbek territory. In the south, Uzbek soldiers recently battled against 100 rebel fighters. And last month, rebels penetrated as far as the Bostanlyk mountains, only 115 miles from Tashkent.


Given the increasing scale of the fighting, political observers think the presidential amnesty is a long overdue olive branch.


Though they have shown a fierce dedication to eradicating the rebel threat, many Uzbek soldiers are keenly aware that they are killing their own countrymen.


"A lot of lads who got involved in those organisations did so out of romantic notions," says analyst Mukimdjon Karabaev. "It's possible they want to come home but are afraid of being prosecuted. This decree gives them a last chance."


Some men were recruited with promises of instruction in the Islamic faith, only to be told later that they had to be "fighters for Allah." Given the strength of the Uzbek army, this amounted to being cannon fodder, as the deaths of their comrades in clashes have made only too clear.


The decree could thus serve to weaken the Islamic movement by increasing existing doubts in the minds of IMU fighters. It could also be a tacit message that the authorities recognise why so many young men joined the guerrilla movement. Widespread unemployment, general lack of prospects and the strict banning of certain religious organisations have all helped swell the Islamic ranks to over 5000, according to some estimates.


What's certain is that the government's move will please powerful western countries who have watched the fighting with dismay, giving their support to military action only on condition that human rights were not infringed in the process.


But one source in the Uzbek Director of Public Prosecutions office was far from optimistic about the decree's success, saying fighters who leave the ranks risk incurring the wrath of their comrades.


In 1999, a mass grave containing 17 beheaded corpses was discovered in eastern Tajikistan. The dead were thought to be followers of Juma Namangani, one of the most powerful leaders of the IMU. Most worryingly, the grave was discovered after a presidential decree in 1999 had offered an amnesty to followers of banned religious groups.


"Those people decided to leave the organisation," says the source in the public prosecutor's office. "But as they were escaping, they were caught by a commander, Abduvali Yuldashev. There was a shootout, several were killed and then all were beheaded and buried in the mass grave."


After Yuldashev was himself killed - supposedly by the Kyrgyz army - rumours circulated that he had been murdered by IMU fighters who couldn't forgive him for such a barbaric act. As the 17 were from the same region, and Yuldashev was from another, clan politics could also have been involved in his death.


Human rights observers, meanwhile, are concerned that the decree may be a smokescreen to lure IMU fighters home so they can be prosecuted later.


Until now the Uzbek authorities have been handing down sentences of up to 15 years to members of religious organisations who have simply been handing out leaflets. If the suspect is thought to have undergone sabotage training in Chechnya or Tajikstan, the penalty could even be death.


This sudden amnesty - where armed rebels would not even be subject to criminal proceedings - is consequently hard to swallow for some.


Talib Yakubov, Chairman of the Society for the Defense of Human Rights in Uzbekistan, is one such sceptic. In 1999, he said, people who came forward during a similar amnesty were actually punished.


"Last year, I was a witness to six youngsters who confessed that they had been in a religious organisation and asked for amnesty", says Yakubov. "They were all arrested and convicted."


The truth about the amnesty will only come out, however, when someone is brave enough to leave the ranks of the IMU. And given evidence of the brutal treatment handed out to deserters in the past, it could be a long wait.


Galima Bukkharbaeva is IWPR's Tashkent Project Editor