President Islam Karimov, a dictator well-schooled in the old methods of Soviet repression, is intensifying his regime’s crackdown on all forms of dissent, whether Islamic or secular. He claims that Uzbekistan is facing a serious threat from an externally funded and controlled Islamic insurgency; the principal aim of the insurgency, he asserts, is to overthrow the country’s secular government and to set up a ‘Muslim caliphate’.
But Karimov’s propaganda blitz has run into difficulties, with human-rights groups demonstrating that what is actually happening in Uzbekistan is not a war between ‘Islamic terrorists’ and the regime but “a massive roundup of political opponents and members of independent mosques”, as a recent newspaper report put it. Even foreign diplomats in Tashkent have begun talking to foreign journalists, albeit anonymously: they suggest that, contrary to the government’s claims, the challenge to Karimov is at home rather than from outside.
The Uzbek authorities’ response is to increase the repression and to continue to insist that the insurgency is a threat to all the Central Asian states, arguing for good measure that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is financed by drug-running and receives support from the Taliban and Sheikh Usama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and from the Chechen mujahideen. The reference to Islamic terrorism in the region has secured western silence over the crackdown, and active Russian support for it, but Tashkent is not getting its way everywhere.
A recent report of the US-based Human Rights Watch describes “brutal and systematic torture at the hands of police and security forces”, and says that the number of deaths is rising. “Police use beatings, suffocation, electric shock, rape and other sexual abuse to coerce victims to confess to crimes”, it reads. The report also accuses the regime of “regularly planting evidence, such as pamphlets and bullets”, and of exerting pressure on family members of those already in detention.
The report’s assertions are borne out by the harsh sentences imposed by local courts. Hosonboy Madrakhimov, from the Ferghana Valley, the main centre of opposition to Karimov, was recently sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for talking to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about the crackdown. He told the BBC that the government was closing independent religious organizations and detaining innocent Muslims, claiming that the “persecution of religious believers is worse now than in Soviet times”. Madrakhimov was arrested almost immediately after the broadcast and put on trial, charged with “anti-constitutional activity”. During his trial only two documents were presented to the court to ‘prove’ that he belonged to an outlawed Islamic group and that his broadcast remarks were “pro-Islamic propaganda”. The police claimed that they had found a document belonging to the group in his house. The defendant strongly denied this, asserting that the document had been planted.
In November a court in Tashkent imposed sentences of up to 20 years to 10 people (seven in absentia). The authorities claimed that they belonged to the “Islamic insurgency”, but among them was Muhammad Solih, chief of the secular Erk opposition party, who ran against Karimov in 1991. He is now in Norway in self-imposed exile. Convicted during the same trial were also Takhit Yuldash and Djuma Namangani, both IMU leaders who are often in Afghanistan or Tashkent. They were sentenced to death. The trial was staged after a fierce battle between troops from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on the one hand and IMU activists on the other. The battle took place in remote mountainous areas, because IMU fighters engage in guerrilla warfare in preference to battles that they cannot hope to win outright. The trial was staged to demonstrate that the IMU is supported by foreign Islamic terrorists.
But the reality that Uzbekistan’s secular elites must surely be aware of is that the IMU is an essentially Uzbek group, even though “the government would like to make the insurgency into something multi-national and non-Uzbek”, as a regional commentator recently said in the Financial Times. The same newspaper-report quoted Tolib Yakubov as saying that “if the IMU fighters were to reach the country’s main population centres, they could count on the help of thousands”. Yakubov, a human-rights activist, is not alone in thinking so, but saying it openly will certainly bring down severe punishment from an increasingly desperate regime.