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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Reprinting someone else's article, might be cheating, but what the hey!

A powder keg that is about to explode
The Times
Giles Whittell,,7-1065098,00.html

Uzbekistan is a key ally of the US in the war against terror. Yet its leader's crushing of religious freedom may be creating the very fundamentalism that he dreads

“YOU LOOK at them,” says the old woman in the headscarf. “I don’t want to. I’ve seen them before.” This woman is 62 but looks much older. She sits at a low wooden table surrounded by cushions and dotted with bowls of sweets in bright wrappers. Across it she slides a small photo album with a cheerful but cruelly incongruous picture of two skiers on its cover. Inside the album are the last photographs taken of her oldest son. Most of them are too distressing to print, but one is particularly repulsive. It shows the body of a big, strong, naked man, prone and face down, with what looks like an angry purple birthmark covering his entire back.

The woman closes her eyes and explains how it got there. “He didn’t want to confess to praying five times a day because he didn’t consider it a crime, so they put long metal spikes in a canvas bag and beat him with it. Still he didn’t confess, so they attached electrodes to his abdomen. Still he didn’t confess, he didn’t die. So he was put into 25 litres of boiling water, in a bath. When his skin was off they poured disinfectant on him. They removed his fingernails and broke his nose and teeth. There was nowhere on his body that was not covered with bruising and signs of torture.”

His name was Muzafar Avazov. Hers is Fatima Mukhadirova. She is one of several thousand mothers whose sons and husbands have been taken from them for defying the authority of the flatly unrepentant Government of Uzbekistan — the most populous and perplexing country in former Soviet Central Asia and a “key ally” of the US in the global war on terror, which was shaken last week by two alleged suicide bombs and a six-hour gunfight between special forces and Islamist radicals.

Avazov’s crime was to have been linked to those radicals; specifically to the Hizb ut-Tahrir sect, which seeks to replace Uzbekistan with an Islamic caliphate under the Sharia Muslim legal system. Uzbek officials claim he died after a fight with a fellow inmate at the Jaslyq detention centre 1,300km (800 miles) north-west of Tashkent, but his mother received a different account in the form of four letters from other inmates who said he had been tortured to death — a view endorsed by Theo van Boven, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, after studying the pictures taken of Avazov’s body by his family immediately before his burial.

Mukhadirova is grindingly poor, but with the help of van Boven and others she has been able to publicise her son’s fate. As a result she was jailed, and as a result of that she found herself thrust suddenly into frontline geopolitics. Her own fate became a litmus test of Uzbekistan’s readiness to listen to international condemnation of its human rights record, and six weeks ago, hours before a US Government plane carrying Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, touched down in Tashkent, she was released.

To Rumsfeld, Uzbekistan is the country on Afghanistan’s northern border that helpfully leased a major military base to US forces for its conquest of the Taleban. To discerning travellers for the past six centuries it has been the land of Tamerlane; of silk and saffron and the finest oases between the Pamirs and the Caspian. It is also, in 2004, an astonishing preglasnost relic where democracy, free markets and religious tolerance are if anything more remote than in 1991, the year in which Islam Karimov, deftly but unopposed, promoted himself from General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR to President of his own new, independent republic.

Karimov has an intense dislike of being judged by the criteria of the international human rights agenda. He would prefer to be left to enjoy a place at the top table of world leaders, to which he has been welcomed because of Uzbekistan’s strategic position at the heart of Central Asia. Since 9/11, with some equivocations, the US has obliged. For opening the Khanabad base to American forces in September 2001 Karimov was rewarded with a full-dress White House reception and US aid worth more than $200 million a year. Renewal of a significant chunk of that aid depends on a decision by the US Secretary of State on whether to certify that Uzbekistan is moving in the right direction on human rights. Colin Powell’s decision, due last month, has been postponed.

A failure to re-certify Uzbekistan would risk unravelling America’s entire Central Asian strategy, yet the alternative would trigger widespread derision. As Craig Murray, Britain’s Ambassador in Tashkent, told The Times last week: “No reasonable person could argue in good faith that there is any sign of improvement in the human rights situation. It’s still appalling.”

Murray’s critics in both Tashkent and London have accused him of drinking too much and conducting an affair with a 22-year-old Uzbek hairdresser, but on human rights, the evidence bears him out. Avazov died nearly two years ago, but arbitrary arrest and torture have continued unabated and assurances of human rights reforms have proved hollow.

Latifat Nabieva has discovered this to her cost. She was asleep with her husband on the night of January 8 this year when a detachment of ten police broke into their flat in southern Tashkent and started beating him where he lay. “They didn’t show us any papers. Four of the men laid into my husband for about 15 minutes until there was blood everywhere,” she says.

Sitting in the room where it happened, Nabieva says she next saw her husband two months later, at his trial. He told her the beating had continued till dawn after he had been taken from their flat to a basement cell at the local police station. She testified about the night of the arrest at the trial, “but no-one took any notice”. Her husband got seven years for “extremism, terrorism and fundamentalism” under articles 159 and 216 of a 1998 law on “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations”. She insists he was not a member of any outlawed Islamic sect, nor a reader of banned literature.

His real sin, it seems, was to have three sons already in jail. His youngest, Faroukh, was arrested in April 2000 and given seven years in prison. His oldest, Forkhat, was taken from a bus on his way home in April last year. He got eight years. His middle son, Mirzorakhmat, was siezed at home ten days later and six months after that his mother visited him in the Jaslyq detention centre. He had been transferred there, he said, for refusing to plunge his hand into a bowl of excrement at his first prison in Navoi.

“It’s a humiliation they use to show who’s in charge,” Nabieva said. “But my son told them he was a Muslim who used his hands to eat.”

He said he had also been forced to breathe through a urine-soaked pad until he choked, and dropped on to a cement floor by four men from above head height — a manoeuvre known as “the bird”, contrived to break a person’s ribs.

I asked Nabieva why she thought her family had been singled out. “We haven’t been,” she said. “There are many families with five sons in jail. If I had ten they would have taken all ten.”

As it is, her three were all accused of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir. They were not members, Nabieva said. “But they are now. They’ve all joined up in prison.”

Last week Uzbekistan experienced the worst violence in its short history as an independent country. More than 40 people were killed by bombs, machine guns and accidental explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara. Yet if you had been there as a tourist you could have missed the whole thing. Tashkent was sunny, warm and preternaturally quiet. Bodies and bomb debris were cleared away before bystanders could get close. Forensics experts didn’t stand a chance (and Uzbekistan does have some, trained in the US). Monday’s blasts made the evening news but Tuesday’s reprisals barely got a mention.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was blamed, but the truth is probably murkier, and on the streets President Karimov’s subjects kept their counsel. One of them, an ethnic Russian pausing for a smoke less than a mile from the scene of a gunfight that was said to have killed at least 16 people, shook with fear when I asked him what was going on.

This is the nature of Uzbekistan’s prized stability. It has defied woeful forecasts, issued as the Soviet Union collapsed, of fundamentalism overwhelming Russia’s soft Islamic underbelly. This in turn has allowed Karimov to trumpet Uzbekistan’s spooky calm as his greatest achievement. Washington has applauded him for it, but the alternative view is that he is setting himself up for an almighty explosion.

“What we’re seeing is the creation of fundamentalist and potentially violent opposition where it didn’t exist before,” one Western diplomat told me with eerie prescience; bombs started exploding hours later.

If he is right the next place to watch may be the Fergana Valley. This is one of the most fertile and potentially enchanting places on earth; Uzbekistan’s Eden. It is also an economic mess, and the only place in former Soviet Central Asia where Islam survived beyond state control throughout the Soviet experiment. Its biggest city, with an unemployment rate of about 60 per cent, is Andijan, and here an Uzbek human rights advocate told me bluntly that Karimov was sitting on a powder keg. “The powers that be are playing with fire,” he said. “If it goes on like this, one fine day people will simply pick up their weapons and go crazy.”

The following day we took a circuitous route to the house of Abduquddus Mirzoev, a round-faced man in his early thirties with a full beard and a considerable following among Andijan’s devouter Muslims. This is partly because he studied for four years in Medina; but mainly because until 1995 his father was the immensely popular imam of Andijan’s largest mosque, routinely preaching there to congregations of 10,000 and more. Then he disappeared.

“He was going to Moscow to attend an Islamic conference,” Abduqudduz says of his father. “People had warned him not to fly via Tashkent, and he didn’t want to, but there was no alternative. He reached Tashkent but never flew from there. The people meeting him in Moscow never saw him.”

Abduquddus says his father explicitly disavowed Hizb ut-Tahrir and vanished because of his popularity and his refusal to genuflect to Karimov in his sermons. He is also convinced that his father is still alive, which may be wishful thinking. What is clear is that he was kidnapped from the departure lounge of Tashkent airport by the SNB, successor to the Uzbek KGB, minutes before he was due to board Uzbekistan Airlines flight 668 on August 29, 1995. He was to be accompanied by a member of his congregation who knew Moscow well, Ramazan Matkarimov, but Matkarimov was kidnapped too. His brother, Adkhan, has reconstructed the scene from eyewitness accounts.

“We have friends who were also on the flight,” he says. “They went through check-in and security with my brother and the Imam, then they looked round for the Imam to pray with him and he was gone.”

Andijan’s magnificent Dzhumi Mosque was shut down soon after the kidnappings. Hundreds more mosques, built during a shortlived flowering of Islam in the Fergana Valley in the early 1990s, have also been closed. A handful remain open in each city for state-sanctioned Friday prayers, but to worship anywhere else is to risk torture and prison.

President Karimov’s morbid fear of religious fundamentalism is fashionable in the age of al-Qaeda but also deeply Soviet, and Sovietism preserved in aspic is Uzbekistan’s real problem. The country has not survived the past 12 years completely unchanged — Tashkent has its Sheraton; cell phone signals are impressive — but opposition parties are banned, all media is censored and Karimov’s delusions are beginning to rival those of his neighbour, President Saparmurat “Turkmenbashi” Niyazov of Turkmenistan. (In September Karimov’s historical and political writings will reportedly become the core of the Uzbek national curriculum.)

As for the economy, it makes Stalin’s five-year plans look nuanced and enlightened. Over the past two years Karimov has sealed his borders, slapped a 70 per cent tariff on all imports and shut down the bazaars. Soviet-era collective farms are unreformed and pay their workers the equivalent of $2 a month. Technically, private farming is allowed, but those who try it are told what to grow, whom to sell it to and at what price. Last month a Western researcher visited a “private” farm southwest of Tashkent whose “owner” had dared to sell his apples on the open market. He received a ten-year prison sentence while his neighbours were ordered to cut down his apple trees, and did so.

“Miserable poverty combined with a total lack of solidarity is producing a social vacuum,” this researcher said. “And it’s precisely this vacuum that militant Islam is filling.”

It is doing so with the help of martyrs like Muzafar Avazov, the grotesquely tortured son of Fatima Mukhadirova. It hardly needs saying that Mukhadirova’s other son has also been taken from her. 2004, she notes, has been declared Uzbekistan’s Year of Mercy and Kindness. Meanwhile the website for the US Embassy in Tashkent announces Washington’s grave concern about the deteriorating human rights situation — in Turkmenistan.

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