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Monday, August 21, 2006

Questions over militant threat in Tajikistan

Government warns of extremist plots but doubts remain about the danger posed by Islamic groups.

By Madina Saifidinova in Khujand and Saodat Asanova in Dushanbe for IWPR (21/08/06)

The government says a recent violent incident in which an alleged Muslim militant blew himself up is an example of the increase in attacks by banned Islamic movements - though some Tajiks are not so sure.

Authorities claim that 25-year-old Orif Jalolov, who detonated a hand grenade when police attempted to arrest him in the village of Navgilem in the Isfara region of northern Tajikistan, was a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and was planning terrorist acts in Khujand, the region’s administrative center.

What is known is that the 3 August blast also killed the 47-year-old commander of the Sogd regional department for combating organised crime, ROBOP, Lieutenant Colonel Islom Jalolov. Police officers Shamsidin Naimov and Iskandar Rozykov remain in hospital in serious condition.

Another IMU suspect, 27-year-old Farrukh Khalimov, fled the scene but was arrested at his Navgilem home two days later, according to the ROBOP. They allege a gun and ammunition were found at his home. Khalimov has been charged under a section of the Tajik criminal code dealing with the organization of a criminal group.

The IMU formed in the late nineties with the goal of setting up an Islamic state in Islam Karimov’s secular Uzbekistan. It has now expanded its aims to all of Central Asia and operates throughout the region, including Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Kazakstan. It was weakened by the overthrow of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan but, if authorities are to be believed, appears to have again become active in the region.

ROBOP officials told IWPR six alleged IMU members were arrested in the first half of the year; eight others in the Sogd region in 2005.

Analysts believe that after the arrests some IMU supporters moved to nearby Kyrgyzstan, which has since seen its share of militant activity, including a gun battle in early August between IMU suspects and police. That ended in the death of Fakhtullo Rahimov, who escaped from a prison in Kairakkum near Khujand on 25 January during an armed attack on the facility. Two others also died including the head of detention centre Bobojon Gadoiboev.

Elsewhere, police in Jalalabad in the south of Kyrgyzstan killed five suspected IMU members on 14 July. There have been suggestions that those who died were connected to two incidents in Jalalabad in early July in which a traffic policeman died and two others were wounded.

“IMU allies are trying to destabilize the social and political situation. Every arrest is accompanied with the use of firearms,” said the deputy head of ROBOP in the Sogd Oblast, Zikrie Abduazizov.

Some analysts, however, question the claims of increased activity by the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, another banned group which has called for the creation of a pan-Muslim state incorporating all the countries in the region - though advocates non-violence.

They point out that Central Asian leaders have a long history of citing the threat of terrorism to justify cracking down. Governments in the region dislike opposition of any kind, and are especially fearful when it comes in the form of political Islam - which appears to offer simple solutions to the insurmountable problems of economic, political and social marginalization - and is based on a tradition with deeper roots than either Soviet communism or the neo-nationalism which emerged from it.

Some speculate, meanwhile, that Tajikistan doesn’t want to be left behind in the so-called war on terror and is keen to be seen dealing harshly with radical groups operating within its borders. As a result, they say, many who are rounded up in the police sweeps could simply be ordinary criminals unconnected to any militant organizations.

Critics say police investigations into these alleged extremist incidents are notorious for their violent methods.

According to one journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, the man who blew himself up in Navgilem may have done so because he feared brutal police tactics. “He took this step to avoid being tortured after his arrest. I am sure that if he had been taken in, then the law-enforcement bodies would have tortured him. He chose death,” he said.

Life in prison is also harsh. Relatives of several detainees recently wrote to local newspapers to complain how their loved ones were mistreated in prison. The letter, which was passed on to international human rights groups, detailed torture, beatings, intimidation and starvation.

Under the crackdown, Tajik authorities have begun meting out hefty sentences, particularly to female members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In May, nine women received between five and 11 years for associating with the group, which has been illegal since 2001. None was accused of acts of violence, and the most serious charge was calling for the state to be overthrown. Other accusations were that they had distributed leaflets and recruited new female members.

Family members of those sentenced for such seemingly minor crimes may be particularly tempted to join banned organizations, analysts say.

“Currently, it seems that the government’s actions, such as mass sentencing does not frighten people off, but rather encourages relatives of people sentenced to join terrorist organizations en masse,” said political analyst Boimakhmad Alibakhsiev.

Analyst Manuchekhra Jumakhonova speculates that many are attracted to these banned groups not out of a sense of “religious fanaticism” but as a way to escape the poverty and unemployment that blights their lives.

“Extremist groups use this chance to lure people into their ranks with small jobs, and perhaps not everyone understands the price of these earnings,” said Jumakhonova.

Khosiyat Barotova, a resident of Khujand, worries her family members could be among those tempted into joining the IMU or Hizb-ut-Tahrir for economic reasons.

“My family is not well off and often needs additional jobs besides our main work. I know that terrorist organizations like the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir mainly lure people with small jobs, and I am very scared that my children may join their ranks,” she said.

This article originally appeared in Reporting Central Asia, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Foreign Office and the US State Department.
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