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UZBEKISTAN: Karimov Steps up War on Islamists

President Karimov says harsh methods against fundamentalists are justified, while rights activists warn they only fuel their militancy.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbekistan's authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, has vowed to continue his sweeping campaign against the Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir until it has been entirely wiped out.


Karimov signaled there would be no let-up in the drive against religious militants at a recent press conference in Tashkent held during a visit by the Iranian president, Said Mohammed Khatami.


Describing the wave of arrests and court cases as a struggle against radical extremists, he said they had no legal right to continue their activities. "In accordance with the law, we will pursue that organisation and will not allow it to appear on Uzbekistan's territory," he said.


President Karimov said his stance had the backing of Moscow and Washington and that a recent US-Russian commission meeting in the Russian capital had characterised Hizb ut-Tahrir as an extremist body.


Uzbek human rights organisations admit the Islamic movement professes an extremist ideology but insist brute force alone will not suppress it.


Mikhail Ardzinov, chair of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, IOHRU, said the government had mobilised the entire security apparatus against this group. "Everyone is fighting Hizb ut-Tahrir from the Uzbek national security service to the law enforcement agencies, the prosecution office, right down to informers, but to no effect," he said.


Experts like Ardzinov believe the group continues to thrive off growing poverty, social injustice and the lack of persuasive, alternative state ideology.


The organisation, whose Arabic name means "Party for Freedom", was founded in 1953 by Takiyuddin Nabkhani, a cleric who set the goal of creating a single "Caliphate", uniting all Muslims under its rule.


These days, Hizb ut-Tahrir works for the peaceful transformation of existing Muslim states into Islamic societies. Its ideas have proved attractive to many Uzbeks. Official statistics put the membership in the republic at more than 10,000 before active repression began in 1999.


According to political analyst Bakhodyr Musaev, Hizb ut-Tahrir gained a foothold in Uzbekistan after the Soviet Union and its communist ideology collapsed in 1991, developments that stimulated a religious revival.


With a year-on-year decrease recorded in living standards since independence from the Soviet Union, faith had declined in the government and its ability to improve the economy, he said.


Musaev added that Hizb ut-Tahrir maintained, "only an Islamic state can give people a fair and worthy life" and that an ideology calling for a simple, ascetic lifestyle appealed to many impoverished people.


The IOHRU says active persecution of the Islamists started in 1998, when the authorities realised it had put down deep roots in the community, posing a threat to the secular constitution.


Isolated investigations and arrests became more widespread after explosions rocked Tashkent in February 1999, which the government blamed on Islamists. According to IOHRU, the authorities jailed about 50 members each month over 1999 and 2000.


IOHRU believes about 5,000 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists are now in prison. It says investigations and arrests are continuing at a reduced pace and that a further 70 members were convicted this year.


Human rights campaigners believe the falling number of convictions is not a sign of declining zeal on the part of the authorities but merely shows party members have gone underground. The business of distributing leaflets has almost entirely stopped.


As a sign of their determination to maintain the crackdown, the authorities have recently started prosecuting female members.


Courts in Tashkent this month convicted four women aged 25-30 of membership, jailing them for up to four years under.


Ardzinov says evidence that women now play an active role in Hizb ut-Tahrir suggests the organisation is finding replacements for male party members that have been imprisoned.


He says he's greatly concerned by the treatment of the detainees, who, he claims, are beaten, tortured and humiliated. "Can we fight extremists and say their activities are unlawful with such illegal methods?" he said.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR country director in Uzbekistan, Artur Samari is an independent journalist