On July 14 a Tashkent court sentenced opposition activist Mahbuba Kasymova to five years’ in prison for having sheltered Rovshan Hamidov, a prominent militant of the Warriors of Islam, in her apartment over an extended period of time. The United States-based Human Rights Watch has denounced the sentence as part of an offensive against Uzbek human rights advocates. On July 25 the Supreme Court of Karakalpakistan–a nominally autonomous republic within Uzbekistan–sentenced three young Islamic activists to prison terms between ten and fifteen years for conspiring to overthrow the constitutional system. The three Uzbeks had been apprehended while attempting to cross clandestinely from Turkmenistan into Iran. In recent weeks, Uzbek police have detained scores of members of the underground Party of Liberation, whose leaders advocate restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. On July 23, a group of twenty-seven Islamists went on trial in Tashkent, most of them on terrorism-related charges (Tashkent Television, July 26; IPS, July 25; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad, in Uzbek), July 24).
The latest arrests and convictions form part of the crackdown on Islamic radical groups and independent Muslims, which intensified last year and gathered more steam after the February 16 terrorist bomb attacks in Tashkent. Iranian state radio, which had threatened violence against Uzbekistan and aired inflammatory broadcasts by Uzbek Islamic militants, now suggests that the Uzbek authorities themselves arranged the February 16 attacks and invented some other conspiracies as well. Iranian broadcasts to Uzbekistan are using not only Islamic but also secular Uzbek opposition figures, most recently Mohammad Solih, leader of the banned Erk party. In two recent broadcasts, Solih rejected accusations that he had supported the Islamic radical underground from his Turkish haven. He countered that the Uzbek authorities had orchestrated the explosions in order to crack down on the opposition and had extracted confessions–in that and other cases–through torture (Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad, in Uzbek), July 24-25; see also the Monitor, March 26, April 16, May 13, June 4, 28, July 2).
The spiraling confrontation between the secular Uzbek government and Islam has produced an unusual constellation among the interested external factors. The Iranian regime and some Western human rights groups–two polar opposites–are condemning the crackdown in Uzbekistan. Secular Turkey has refused to extradite Solih or to rein in Turkish Islamists who sponsor schools in Uzbekistan–a refusal which has spoiled Ankara’s friendly relations with Tashkent. And Russia, which regards the Western-oriented Uzbekistan as a rival for influence in Central Asia and seldom misses an opportunity to criticize it, now seems reassured because it harbors its own, Soviet-bequeathed preconceptions about Islam.
Meanwhile the government of Uzbekistan has adopted a resolution on commemorating victims of and militants against the Soviet “colonial regime.” Under the resolution, monuments are to be built in Tashkent and in regional centers to those who were persecuted and to participants in the resistance. The latter category almost certainly–indeed mainly–includes the Basmachi, members of a secular, nationalist, Turkic-oriented guerrilla movement which fought the Soviet authorities during the 1920s and 1930s. The government’s resolution also creates a national fund–Martyrs’ Memorial–to sponsor the publication of books and periodicals dedicated to anti-Soviet patriotic groups. The official aim of the resolution is to encourage public attachment to national independence and loyalty to the Uzbek state (Tashkent Television, July 22; Itar-Tass, July 26). The decision is, almost certainly, related to the government’s effort to contain Islam. In Uzbekistan as elsewhere in Central Asia, nationalism and nation-state-building function as an antidote to the supranational ideology of Islam.
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