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Uzbekistan: Islamic Group Driven Underground

Government claims success in its campaign to wipe out Hizb-ut Tahrir.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

A banned Islamic group has been driven underground by the Uzbek government's three-year crackdown on fundamentalism, a high-level official has claimed.


Ilya Pyagai, deputy head of the Uzbekistan Internal Affairs Ministry's anti-terrorist department, told IWPR that a campaign of mass arrests and long prison sentences for suspected members of Hizb-ut Tahrir had left the group in disarray.


"We have put an end to the activity of Hizb-ut Tahrir in Uzbekistan. The bulk of the organisation, including its leaders, have been brought to trial while the remaining members are afraid to campaign," said Pyagai.


International human rights groups have condemned the crackdown, which they claim has led to the illegal detention and torture of many peaceful worshippers.


Hizb-ut Tahrir was founded in Palestine in the early Fifties by Arab theologian Takydin Nabahani, with the ultimate goal of uniting all Muslim countries under a pan-Islamic Caliphate. The group denies the authorities' claim that it advocates violent methods for political change.


The Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, IOHRU, and the ministry of internal affairs both say that around 4,200 suspected Hizb-ut Tahrir activists are now in prison.


Most are serving long sentences of up to 20 years for crimes such as violating the country's constitution, running prohibited organisations or distributing seditious pamphlets.


IOHRU head Mikhail Ardzinov agrees that Hizb-ut Tahrir's activities have largely been suppressed. "It has suffered a major blow and has now gone underground. The group has not published a single pamphlet for four months," he said.


The anti-terrorism department claims that the remaining members have gone into hiding, and that the group has moved its bases into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan.


Nationwide membership had previously been estimated at 10,000 with cells in and around Tashkent, Namangan, Fergana and Andijan, and the provinces of Khorezm, Bukhara, Surkhandaria, Kashkadaria, Jizak and Karakalpakstan.


While fundamentalist groups began recruiting in Uzbekistan under Soviet rule, the break-up of the communist empire saw a dramatic rise in their activities in the region's newly independent - and impoverished - states.


The Uzbek crackdown began after explosions in the capital Tashkent in February 1999, which the government blamed on religious extremists from the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. The authorities see fundamentalism as the biggest threat to national security.


Pyagai says Hizb-ut Tahrir has now taken steps to counter the loss of its members by recruiting women from the families of imprisoned members, citing their recent protests as evidence of the trend.


Ardzinov, however, says the demonstrations are not politically-motivated. "These families have lost their breadwinners, they hear about endless torture and harassment suffered by their relatives in prison and naturally they want to protest. They demand that their husbands, brothers and sons be freed, or that jail conditions be improved," he said.


Human Rights Watch recently claimed that at least 18 women and their children were detained in Tashkent and Margilan in the Fergana valley at the end of April while demanding better treatment of political prisoners and the release of their menfolk.


Analysts have long argued that by relying on force to suppress "undesirable" groups, the authorities risk creating many more extremists, especially amongst the young. Hizb-ut Tahrir's ranks may have been depleted, but they could soon be filled by a new generation of eager recruits.


Galima Bukharbaeva is the director of IWPR in Uzbekistan


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