On May 8, Kyrgyz authorities announced that a court in the city of Osh has sentenced five men to various terms of imprisonment for “terrorism” and conspiracy to create a state of Uighuristan out of territories belonging to China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Three of the men are Uighur emigres from China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, a fourth is a citizen of Turkey and the fifth is an ethnic Karachai citizen of Russia. The trial took nearly two years to determine that this “extremist Islamic” group had been involved in two bomb explosions in June 1998 in Osh, one on a bus and one in an apartment building, which killed five innocent bystanders.
The announcement, issued by Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Ministry, contained the mix of mutually inconsistent statements familiar from the communiques of Russian and Central Asian security and law enforcement authorities in similar situations. It portrayed the group as “Islamic fundamentalist” and “Wahhabi,” notwithstanding the fact that the Uighur movement is secular nationalist. The announcement described the Turkish conspirator as a member of a Grey Wolves’ network, as if that pan-Turkic organization were still active, and ignoring the fact that Grey Wolves’ ideology is strongly secular. And it theorized that the Karachai conspirator from Russia had been trained by Chechens and been “sent to Central Asia “by [Jordanian citizen and Chechen commander] Khattab himself in order to spread Wahhabi ideas.”
The sentencing followed in the wake of the assassination of Nigmat Bazakov, a leader of the Uighur community of Kyrgyzstan and publisher of the Ittipak newspaper. Bazakov was shot on March 28 in Bishkek by two unidentified perpetrators, whom the Internal Affairs Ministry purported to describe as “ethnic Asians with beards”–an insinuation that Islamists were responsible. Bazakov had been an unsuccessful candidate in the recent parliamentary elections. Kyrgyzstan, like Kazakhstan, is home to an Uighur minority which is concentrated in areas bordering on China. That minority is essentially indigenous but includes some refugees from across the border.
Last week the Uighur international diaspora leader, Erkin Alptekin, who is also one of the leaders of the Geneva-based Organization of Unrepresented Peoples, paid a visit to Bishkek in an attempt to discuss the situation of Uighurs with the authorities of Kyrgyzstan. Alptekin criticized the misrepresentation of Uighurs as “Wahhabis” and “Islamic fundamentalist” by local mass media. He asked the authorities to clarify the circumstances of Bazakov’s assassination in order to dispel suspicions that it had been politically inspired. Alptekin further registered concern that Kyrgyzstan may extradite some Uighurs to China in response to demands by Beijing. And he noted that growing insecurity among Uighurs in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is beginning to generate an outmigration of that minority to points further west. An estimated total of one million Uighurs currently reside in those three Central Asian countries, Turkey, and Western countries.
In the nominally autonomous Xinjiang-Uighuria, the number of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims is estimated at up to 10 million. Han Chinese settlers almost equal that number by now. Chinese authorities cracked down on the Uighur national movement in 1998 using military force, trials and executions. Some Uighur militants reacted violently, staging terrorist attacks which in turn led to more repression in 1999 and closer surveillance this year. Against that background, Central Asian leaders seek to reassure Beijing that they will not allow Uighur irredentism to develop in their countries among Uighur minorities. That is the meaning of pledges to curb “ethnic separatism,” which feature at every high-level meeting of Kazakh and Kyrgyz leaders with their Chinese counterparts, both bilaterally and in the framework of the Shanghai-Five group of countries (KyrgyzKabar, March 28, May 6; Itar-Tass, May 6, 8; see Rajan Menon and S. Enders Wimbush, “Asia in the 21st Century,” The National Interest (Washington), No. 59, Spring 2000).
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