On July 19, 2004, the Russian newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets published a sensational article entitled, “200 Days of Jihad.” The author of the article, Svetlana Meteleva, is a special correspondent who claimed to be sharing her “insider” observations regarding the activities of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Party of Liberation. HUT claims to want to establish a unified Islamic state — or Caliphate — in Central Asia.
According to Meteleva, she had been recruited by party activists and remained in the ranks of the organization for almost six months. During this time it became clear to her that HUT is characterized by a very well concealed structure dominated by Wahhabi doctrines. Meteleva claimed that HUT has a highly efficient recruitment mechanism for enticing new members. In addition, HUT has an “armed wing” that includes snipers and explosives experts. All of these factors, according to Meteleva, pose danger to Russia (Moskovsky komsomolets, July 19).
While discussing her experience as a rank-and-file member of the party, Meteleva confirmed speculation that HUT, not only considers itself to be the protector of the Asian members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also sees practically the entire Caucasus region, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Kalmykiya, and the regions adjacent to the Caspian Sea as falling under its jurisdiction as well. Currently members of this party, who arrived in Russia from Central Asia (Meteleva says she was recruited by Uzbeks), are actively engaged in propaganda activities and working to attract as many supporters as possible. Meteleva writes, “The traditional ‘grazing areas’ of HUT recruiters are the mosques, prayer halls at markets, the markets themselves, railway stations and . . . Orthodox churches. According to Meteleva, she became a member of one of the dozens of HUT cells in Moscow and Moscow Oblast. There are also many cells in other Russian regions, including Kazan, Yekaterinburg, and Orenburg. The Supreme Council of the Russian branch of HUT is located in Tomsk.
Recently human rights activist Vitaly Ponomarev, director of Memorial’s Human Rights Monitoring Program in Central Asia, commented on this controversial article. Ponomarev thinks that Meteleva’s story, which he says is riddled with inaccuracies, not only uses information obtained from the special services, but also substitutes facts with rumors and speculation. Ponomarev is convinced that this article, in essence, is an ideological justification for launching an anti-Muslim campaign in various regions of Russia. “There are no serious reasons to believe that there are 5,000 armed militants in Bashkortorstan or that there is a connection between the Union of Bashkir Youth and the supporters of the idea of Caliphate, or that Russia and its Muslim regions are territories where, according to the HUT ideologues, the creation of the ‘global Caliphate’ will commence in the foreseeable future,” concludes.
Ponomarev pointed out that Russia’s Supreme Court, which designated HUT as a “terrorist organization” in February 2003, made this decision “based on one-sided information provided by the special services,” even though no HUT member had ever been found guilty in Russia “for committing or conspiring to commit terrorist acts or other violent crimes.” Importantly, Ponomarev notes, “The religious-political ideology of HUT, of course, remains radical. However, political radicalism and terrorism are two completely different notions.”
Whether or not HUT has a grand scheme for Russia, the organization’s presence and growth in Central Asian countries raise constant concerns for the governments of this region. Human rights organizations in Uzbekistan report that the country has more than 7,000 political prisoners who oppose the regime of Islam Karimov; the overwhelming majority are HUT members. The persecution of party members has also increased in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. One such example is the recently concluded trial of 20 HUT members in Khojand, Tajikistan, where the defendants were accused of organizing and participating in the outlawed group as well as inciting national, racial, and religious hatred (Itar-Tass, July 10).
Currently, seven suspected HUT members from the town of Karakola (Issyk-Kul district, Kyrgyzstan) are held at a pre-trial detention facility. In addition, four suspected HUT members have been convicted and are now serving time at a prison facility in the town of Balykchy. Eight more suspects will be tried on criminal charges in the near future. All of them are accused of violating Articles 259, 297, and 299 of the Criminal Law of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, which provide punishments for illegal distribution of religious literature, calls against the constitutional order, and appeals for religious unity (Centrasia, July 23).
Many observers, even those who do not support the repressive measures against HUT members, agree that the propaganda activities of this party invariably worry Russia and the Central Asian states. Were HUT to realize its ultimate objective of establishing a Caliphate, it would entail the destruction of several existing countries. HUT, analysts think, is preparing the ideal ideological base for other groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), that pursue similar objectives by violent means. This is precisely the scenario that members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization had in mind during their recent summit in Tashkent, where they inaugurated the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, which is intended to facilitate information sharing about terrorism.