Uzbekistan Wages Silent War Against Islamists
Russian President Vladimir Putin flanked by his wife Ludmila listens to Uzbek President Islam Karimov after arrival at Tashkent's airport 18 May 2000
NAMANGAN, Uzbekistan, April 10 (AFP) - Police stormed into Bakhodirs house in this traditionally Muslim city in Uzbekistan's fertile Ferghana Valley one night in March last year, dragging his son Usen from his bed and arresting him on charges of Wahhabism.
"He did not have time to get involved in anything like that as he was always too busy repairing cars," said Bakhodir. "But they beat him and to remain alive he said he was a Wahhabi."
Usen, 26, was sentenced last June along with 10 acquaintances to 16 years in prison for attempting to create an Islamic state.
The conviction was determined on the basis of leaflets his father said were planted in his home, and a forced confession.
Human rights groups say the 26-year-old Uzbek is one of thousands of Muslim faithful caught up in the Uzbekistan government's silent war against Islamists whom they suspect of extremism whatever their views.
The former Soviet state has imposed strong secular rule and clamped down hard on any form of religious or political dissent among the country 24 million people.
"Declaring an all-out war on Wahhabism, which has become a catch-all pejorative, the authorities have persecuted independent Muslim leaders and believers associated with unofficial Muslim groups," a report published by the United States Helsinki Commission watchdog said.
"In a series of show trials defendants discredited as dangerous religious extremists have been convicted of criminal offenses based on forced confessions and planted evidence. Uzbekistan today is a police state at war with groups of its own people," it added.
Human rights groups estimate that some 5,000 political prisoners are being held in Uzbekistan's jails, many from Ferghana Valley towns, like Namangan.
A traditional stronghold of Islamic sentiment, Namangan has seen many of its young men detained simply because they had beards or wore religious clothing, while women have watched their traditional breadwinners convicted of attempting to overthrow the state.
Tursunkhan, 47, sews and sells trousers so that she can support nine women and children left behind after her husband, two sons, brother-in-law and her daughter-in-laws father were jailed on charges of Wahhabism.
Defiantly wearing the traditional hijab of pious Muslim women, she describes how during several searches of their home police "found" drugs, bullets and booklets calling for a jihad in their basements.
According to one western embassy official, the Uzbek authorities repression of Islamists began in the early 1990s after civil war erupted in neighbouring Tajikistan between government and Islamic opposition forces.
The Uzbek government became terrified of the power of the mosques and started arresting well-known religious leaders. The offensive intensified dramatically after a series of bomb blasts in Tashkent in February 1999, blamed on Muslim fundamentalists.
Arrests continue as the Uzbek authorities attempt to stamp out any potential base of support for a group of Uzbek zealots who mounted an armed assault on the countrys southern border in August last year.
The militants, led by exiled Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley, Djuma Namangani and Tokhir Yuldash, demand the introduction of Islamic law in the valley, which straddles Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
But the repression has served only to aggravate tensions in Namangan where resentment is already high among the 50 percent of the population estimated to be unemployed and where official corruption is reported to be widespread.
An average family with five children receives miserly benefits and wages of 10 dollars a month and is forced to grow vegetables to sell at the bazaar to survive.
"At present whoever you talk to is unhappy with the state. Life has become more difficult because of the economic conditions. President Islam Karimov has acquired many enemies among his people," said Tursunkhan.
Human rights activists warn that the severe crackdowns have served to sow disaffection and dissent among the population and that the danger of conflict is arising from within.
US lawmakers warned last November that the Uzbek leaderships heavy-handed policies could fuel discontent and create a pool of potential recruits for radical Islamist groups in the region.
Topics: Central Asia, Uzbekistan