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

Uzbekistan Rapped for Illegal Arrests

Bishkek is accusing Tashkent law enforcement agents of the illegal detention of its citizens
By Karamat Toktobaeva

A few months ago, Aibatilla Nadirov, from the village of Yrys in southern Kyrgyzstan, received a telegramme that his brother was dead. Hadiatilla Nadirov, aged 45, had been serving a five year prison sentence in neighbouring Uzbekistan for illegal religious activities.


Aibatilla immediately left for Uzbekistan to collect his brother's body. According to the prison medical certificate, Hadiatilla died from tuberculosis. Aibatilla is unconvinced, but found no evidence to challenge the authorities. "I couldn't bare looking at him for long and can't say whether there were any signs of internal bruises or broken bones," he said.


Hadiatilla was arrested on February 12, 1999, on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier. Border guards found in his car a leaflet produced by the religious group Khizbut-Takhrir. "He picked up one of the leaflets in Yrys, " said his brother." But during Friday prayers, the day before his arrest, Hadiatulla, who is a practising mullah, criticised Hizbut-Takhrir's ideas and methods."


About six months after his arrest, Hadiatilla was convicted. He was last seen alive in November last year, when his wife visited him in prison.


Hadiatilla is one of five Kyrgyz citizens who've recently died in Uzbek prisons in suspisious circumstances. All the victims had been illegally arrested in Kyrgyzstan by Tashkent law enforcement agents. No reliable information about the cause or circumstances of their deaths has been given to their relatives nor the Kyrgyz authorities.


It has become common practice, especially in border areas, for Uzbek agents to arrest Kyrgyz suspects, mostly ethnic Uzbeks, and transfer them covertly to Uzbekistan to face investigation and trial.


Kyrgyz MP Dooronbek Sadyrbaev believes 38 people have been arrested in Suzak and Bazar-Korgon in 1997 alone. Sadyrbaev said that even if the suspects were guilty of crimes, the clandestine actions were completely unjustified.


Many of the arrests have been documented by Bakhodir Akhmedov, leader of the Republican Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Muslims.


The case of Imam Yuldashbai Tursunbaev of the mosque in Bazar-Korgon is typical. On August 29, 1999, he was arrested in broad daylight by Tashkent security forces. Tursunbaev, a former religious student at seminary in the Uzbek city of Namangan, believes his problems began after the formation of the Adolat (Justice) party in Uzbekistan and the election of Takhir Yuldashev as its leader.


"During a visit by President Islam Karimov, Yuldashev grabbed the microphone from the president, and began shouting 'Uzbekistan must be an Islamic state. You can not be our leader!'" Tursunbaev recalled.


"The president left the hall immediately. From that day, confrontation between state institutions and religious organisations in Uzbekistan increased sharply. Persecution of believers has grown. Many innocent people were thrown in jail."


Tursunbaev makes no secret of the fact that some of his fellow students went on to become Muslim fighters and were involved in the incursions into the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan.


In January 2000, Tursunbaev was tried in a closed-court hearing and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. His brother Ibragim Abdullaev was present during the trial and claims there was no concrete evidence against his brother. Even witnesses did not identify Tursunbaev, Abdullaev said.


Khusidin Sabirov from Jalal-Abad also disappeared in 1999. He too had studied at a seminary in Uzbekistan and had been under the watchful eye of Uzbek security forces since 1996. Sabirov was also tried, convicted and imprisoned by an Uzbek court. Again the reliability of evidence against him has been questioned.


His lawyer Azimjan Askarov said Uzbek militia seized him on the border and took him to Mangitog village in the Katta-Kurgan district of Uzbekistan. Police officers claimed to have found Sabirov in possession of a small quantity of drugs and three bullets.


Askarov said his client was severely beaten and forced to confess. In court, Sabirov retracted his confession, claiming it was made under duress. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.


Even Kyrgyz MPs fear the long reach of the Uzbek security forces nowadays. MP Tursunbai Bakir uulu was involved in the first Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, incursion into the Batken in 1999. " I'm aware that our neighbour is after me - they're just waiting for the right moment to pounce," he said.


An official from the Kyrgyz national security service, who wished to remain anonymous, said it's up to Tashkent how it treats religious activists, although he did concede that some of its methods were "extremely harsh".


"The population of southern Kyrgyzstan are terrified that they could end up on an Uzbek blacklist of criminals and enemies, " the official said. " We don't know whether those kidnapped are guilty of any crimes, but even if they are blood thirsty murderers our colleagues' actions are nevertheless against the law."


The Uzbek authorities have legitimate security concerns. Extremist religious movements have embarked on an unprecedented level of armed activity in the region. The 1999 armed incursion into the Batken was repeated in 2000. Tashkent uses the activities of groups like IMU to justify its heavy-handed tactics.


But the increasing encroachment of Uzbek agents into Kyrgyzstan presents Bishkek with a serious problem. If this trend continues, said the national security service official, "people will stop trusting us and will think us incapable of defending our citizens".


Karamat Toktobaeva is a regular IWPR contributor, Ulugbek Babakulov works with the human rights organisation "Justice"


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