Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 15

Kyrgyzstan’s Internal Affairs Minister Lieutenant-General Omurbek Kutuev announced on July 10 the arrest in Bishkek of ten “terrorists,” said to be members of the Uighur Liberation Front. The group includes citizens of China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. According to Kutuev, his ministry was forced to move prematurely in arresting the Bishkek group after security bodies in the city of Osh had, “through lack of experience,” inadvertently alerted some other Uighur activists, who remain at large in Kyrgyzstan and possibly in neighboring countries.

The minister pronounced the ten guilty of conspiring not only to separate the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region from China by force, but also to “subvert the governments of other ‘Shanghai Five’ countries”–an allusion mainly to Kazakhstan which, like Kyrgyzstan, is home to an Uighur community. He charged that those arrested and their accomplices at large were armed, in possession of “extremist religious literature”–complete with videotapes of Osama Bin-Laden himself, inciting to jihad–and had undergone guerrilla and “Wahhabi” religious training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kutuev charged, moreover, that the group had engaged in kidnapping for ransom and robberies in order to finance the movement; that it assassinated Nigmat Bazakov–a leader of Kyrgyzstan’s Uighur community–in March of this year; and that shortly afterward it ambushed a delegation of Chinese officials in Bishkek, killing one and wounding three. According to Bishkek’s version, those officials were Uighurs from Xinjiang-Uighuria, whom the gunmen wanted to “punish for cooperating with the Chinese authorities.”

An official communique in Bishkek has announced that the ten face the death penalty in Kyrgyzstan, but that the authorities are willing to extradite them to countries of which they are citizens or by which they are wanted for trial. The latter part of the announcement suggests that the Kyrgyz authorities might, in the final analysis, prefer to wash their hands of the affair.

The possible kernel of truth in this version seems obscured by the propaganda message, typical of communiques issued in similar situations by Soviet-schooled security chiefs in post-Soviet Russia and Central Asia. That message as a rule tries to suggest, first, that the country and its security agencies face a formidable array of hostile forces, virtually all of whom must necessarily be involved in virtually every “terrorist act.” Second, it tries to suggest that the same terrorist group threatens many other countries at the same time.

The timing of Bishkek’s announcement made it look like a gift to China. It was clearly related to the Shanghai Forum’s summit the preceding week and follow-up visits to Kyrgyzstan by two Chinese delegations: one by the military command of the Lanzhou military region, which borders on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and one by the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office of China, which discussed joint actions with Kyrgyz prosecutors against terrorism and other crimes, including those “linked with citizens of China” in Kyrgyzstan–a formula that covers emigres from Xinjiang-Uighuria. The Chinese-Kyrgyz discussions in Bishkek were replete–as was the Shanghai Forum’s summit–with condemnations of “national separatism, terrorism and religious extremism.” A fixture in Chinese joint statements with Central Asian countries, that formula is meant to commit those countries to curbing Uighur activities on their territories.

Kyrgyzstan, like Kazakhstan, has until recently managed to avoid the internal political controversy that would likely accompany a crackdown on Uighur groups. But Kyrgyzstan finds it increasingly difficult to shun police measures for three reasons: first, a radicalization of some Uighur groups in Central Asia and in China itself; second, a need to appease Beijing while Kyrgyzstan’s southern border is seen to be threatened; and, third, the charged atmosphere created by Moscow and Tashkent around “Islamic extremism,” a label that Beijing tries to pin also on the secular nationalist Uighur groups, and which virtually requires Kyrgyzstan to move against them.

In May of this year, a court in Osh sentenced five men–including three Uighur refugees from China, one from Turkey and a Turkic man from Russia–to prison for a “terrorist” conspiracy to create a state of Uighuristan in areas belonging to China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Last month, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang-Uighuria announced that they had executed five Uighur “terrorists,” sentenced two others to life imprisonment and six others to various terms of detention. In this context, pressure is mounting on Kyrgyz authorities to either clamp down to the extent of their limited abilities, or extradite Uighur suspects–as the latest communique from Bishkek obliquely offers to do.