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Uzbekistan: A new wave of serious persecution may be just beginning

March 23, 2007

By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

The religious liberty situation for Protestant Christians in Uzbekistan has
deteriorated markedly since May 2005. There are two reasons for this and
while one is well understood, the other is not.

Reason One: HOLDING ON TO POWER

As is well understood, the era of the Soviet-era dictators running
post-Soviet states is coming to an end. Uzbekistan\'s President Karimov has
been watching as post-Soviet states have turned West-ward and embraced
democracy and liberty; and as corrupt, repressive pro-Russian, Soviet-era
Communist dictators have been driven from power in "colour revolutions":
Georgia (Rose, 2003), Ukraine (Orange, 2004) and Kyrzygstan (Tulip, 2005).
Then in December 2006 the Soviet-era strongman Saparmurat Niyazov, President
of Turkmenistan, died aged 66yrs.

Karimov is keen to hold on to power and so he is quick to repress anything
that could threaten the status quo, including threatening non-traditional
religions. Radical Islam (largely foreign influenced) is clearly a serious
threat to Central Asia. However, because Protestant Christianity is
perceived as being essentially Western, anti-corruption and pro-democracy,
Karimov regards it as equally threatening.

While Karimov\'s repression and violence have hurt the Church, they have
enabled the Islamist revolutionary and militant groups that feed off social
anger to grow. Karimov has been perpetuating a vicious reactionary cycle and
Christians are caught up in the slipstream.

Reason Two: LETTING GO OF THE WEST

The other reason why the religious liberty situation for Protestants has
deteriorated over recent years is actually more important but less
understood.

In 1998 when the US State Department passed its Freedom from Religious
Persecution Act (HR 2431), Uzbekistan had several Protestant pastors serving
long prison sentences with hard labour on bogus drugs charges. To avoid
incurring US sanctions as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), Uzbek
leaders negotiated with the US and then released their religious prisoners.
In November 2006, after two years of escalating religious repression, the US
State Department added Uzbekistan to its list of Countries of Particular
Concern (CPC). On 9 March 2007 Uzbekistan sentenced one of its leading
registered Protestant pastors to four years in a penal colony after a sham
trial. Clearly Uzbekistan doesn\'t care about the US or CPC status any more.
(Link 1)

There is no doubt that the critical turning point was the May 2005 uprising
in Andjian.

After the May 2005 Andjian incident WEA RLC News & Analysis wrote (19 July
2005) that Karimov was fighting a war for the status quo against radical
Islam, and it was anticipated that "non-traditional" Protestant Christians
would doubtless be caught up in the ensuing crackdown. (Link 2)

However, immediately after the May 2005 Andijan uprising, another factor
entered the equation and it is this factor that has caused the most serious
damage to the religious liberty and human rights situation in Uzbekistan.

In May 2005, the West was in the midst of a "War on Terror" and Uzbekistan,
a key ally in the War on Terror, was struggling with serious issues
regarding Islamic revolutionary and al-Qaeda linked terrorist organisations.
(Forty-seven people were killed in March and July 2004 in a series of well
planned and well facilitated terrorist attacks that targeted Uzbek police,
private and commercial facilities, and the US and Israeli Embassies.)

Despite this, after the May 2005 incident in Andijan, Western media, human
rights monitors and governments were exceedingly quick to reject the Uzbek
government\'s assertion that Islamic radicals and militants had attempted a
coup d\'etat. Western groups preferred rather to accept (even passionately
embrace) narrative coming from Andijan that alleged that a repressive and
violent government had, for no reason at all, massacred hundreds of innocent
peaceful protesters as they gathered to decry their poverty and the lack of
justice, liberty and democracy under the Karimov regime.

The US, too quick to pass judgment, enacted reactionary policies including
sanctions. From this point onwards, President Karimov no longer viewed the
US as a partner and ally in the "War on Terror". Two months later, in July
2005, President Karimov officially evicted the US military base from
Uzbekistan. The Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase had been established in the
wake of 9/11 to serve as a hub for combat and humanitarian missions into
Afghanistan.

Along with this, Karimov turned increasingly towards Russia, China and the
Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, which Uzbekistan joined in 2001)
which is committed security and "non-interference" and to reducing US
influence in Central Asia.

US influence in Uzbekistan has been dealt a serious blow. Not only has the
US lost its ability to exert positive influence over Uzbekistan in terms of
religious liberty, but due to the souring of relations the West has lost its
ability to influence Uzbekistan\'s secular government towards reform and
openness.

SO WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN ANDJIAN?

A most comprehensive and useful piece on the May 2005 Andijan incident comes
from the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a
Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center based in Johns Hopkins
University-SAIS, Washington, DC, and Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.

Their paper (herein referred to as the Silk Road paper) entitled: "Islamic
Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: implications for the EU" by
Zeyno Baran, S. Frederick Starr, Svante E. Cornell, published in July 2006,
is extremely helpful in many ways. (Link 3)

This paper examines the nature, in terms of history and evolution, of both
Islam and secularism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. It looks at how the
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have affected the region, and how a
proliferation of foreign Islamic missionaries (mostly of the "Wahhabi"
brand), who have arrived during and since perestroika, has radicalised
elements over recent decades. It also examines the ideology and methodology
of the main radical Islamic groups of the region.

One particularly interesting thing in this paper is that it shows how
Islamist groups use, adopt or exploit other causes (ie poverty, or
nationalism), and how they have become extremely sophisticated in
manipulating (and sacrificing) people and employing propaganda and Western
slogans, all for their own political ends. The same patterns of
exploitation, manipulation (of people and media), lies and propaganda are
seen in all conflicts where militant and revolutionary Islamists are present
and seeking to co-opt Western support for their agenda (for example, in the
Middle East and the Balkans).

The Silk Road paper devotes pages 33-40 to the re-emergence of terrorism in
Uzbekistan. Pages 35-50 deal with the May 2005 Andijan incident.

According to the authors, Baran, Starr and Cornell, radical Islamist and
terrorist activity in Central Asia increased markedly from early 2004. After
the March and July 2004 terror attacks in Uzbekistan the US criticised
Uzbekistan\'s human rights while doing little to assist it in its
investigations or response to the terror attacks. According to the authors,
"Overall, the terrorists were greatly emboldened, concluding that Western
opinion would allow them literally to get away with murder." (p 34)

The Silk Road paper claims that the Islamist organisations had also been
watching the "colour revolutions". They too knew the days of corrupt
Soviet-era (secular) dictators were coming to an end, and they were
determined to be the ones to take power in the event of any regime change.
The event that most impacted them was the November 2004 "Tulip Revolution"
in Kyrgyzstan. This was different to the previous "colour revolutions" as it
was violent - yet the West accepted it anyway. The Tulip Revolution (see
link 4) gave the Uzbek Islamists their precedent.

One of the most difficult things for human rights groups has been the fact
that the overwhelming majority of protestors in Babur Square in Andijan on
13 May 2005 were not armed militant Islamist ideologues. Rather they were
family people, women and children, humble citizens just wanting a better
life. As Human Rights Watch reported: "The Uzbek government has stated that
the Andijan protests were organized by \'religious fundamentalists.\'
\'Protesters grievances, however, appeared to focus on a wide range of
issues, including poverty and corruption."

The fact is both are true. The rally that brought several thousand citizens
into Babur Square in Andijan was organised by Islamist groups. They promoted
the event as Uzbekistan\'s chance for a "colour revolution". The repressed,
poor and fearful of Andijan came out in their thousands to protest
repression and stage their people\'s revolution. They were unarmed and
unaware that their peaceful people\'s revolution was going to be used as a
cover for a violent Islamic coup d\'etat. The citizens of Andijan were also
unaware that those who organised the rally would eventually exploit them as
human shields.

As a little bit of background: in the section entitled, "Radical Groups: A
Survey" (commences on page 19) the Silk Road paper reports (p24-25) that
"Akramiya" (the group that organised the uprising - an Andijan based
off-shoot of Hizb ut-Tahrir) has been committed to establishing "Islamic
socialism" in Andijan. One strategy has been for wealthier followers to set
up small business and employ young men who then must attend ideological
study-groups after work. Around one-fifth of the profits of those businesses
go into a fund for Akramiya, which is committed (like Hizb ut-Tahrir) to the
overthrow of the secular government and the enactment of Sharia law and
Islamic rule through the re-establishment of the Caliphate. Their work has
won hearts as it has helped alleviate poverty in the region.

This is how the Silk Road paper describes what happened in Andijan in May
2005 (page 36).

"In June, 2004, 23 businessmen, followers of Akramiya, were arrested and in
February 2005 they were put on trial. Peaceful demonstrations in support of
the defendants went on for several weeks. According to reports from the
region, Akramiya organized the uprising in a carefully planned way: the
accused businessmen promised to pay their staff a full day\'s salary if they
attended the protests. Moreover, their relatives organized transport for
others to come from more distant regions. The protesters were orderly and
asking merely for \'justice\' for their relatives and friends. By May 12th,
the presumed final week of the trial, there were already several thousand
peaceful demonstrators.

"That night, the Uzbek government arrested some demonstrators. This arrest
marked the start of the uprising. On the morning of May 13, armed militants
first seized a police station, then a military post, and then a
high-security prison, collecting weaponry in each place and killing
officials and others along the way. Negotiations between the government and
the militants broke down, in part because the release of Akram Yuldashev
[founder of Akramiya, in prison for involvement in terrorist bombings in
1999] was the main demand of the insurgents. Expecting a harsh reaction from
the government, the insurgents then formed human shields with women and
children." [This point is backed up by footnotes that include a Forum 18
release that reports that the insurgents took hostages and abused them: ". .
.several hostages received severe beatings. The hostages had wire tied round
their necks and were placed at the perimeter of the square as human shields.
Therefore the first to die from the shots fired by Uzbek government forces
were the hostages." Link 5]

The Silk Road paper continues: "While it is yet to be determined who shot
first, by the end of the day, some two hundred persons were dead, most
killed by government troops but a large number killed by the armed
insurgents."

This picture is confirmed by other investigating groups, such as the Council
on Foreign Relations (see report: "Documenting Andijan", link 5), and the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (see report: "The Andijan
Uprising, Akramiya and Akram Yuldashev", link 6, which includes a 69 minute
video of the 13 May 2005 Andijan incident filmed by two locals who believed
they were filming a historic event - a people\'s revolution in Uzbekistan).
This film, which is also referred to in the CFR report "Documenting
Andijan", shows buildings in flames and thousands of peaceful protesters
listening to speeches, encircled by armed Islamic militants, some of whom
are making Molotov cocktails. The militants are clearly preparing for armed
conflict - for a violent Islamic coup d\'etat.

The Silk Road paper comments: "Radical Islamist groups have won the
information war. While the insurgency was an attempted coup d\'etat,
international media framed the story as the massacre of innocent civilians
comparable to the Tiananmen Square incident". (page 38)

"The end result of Andijan is that the U.S. military lost its base in
Uzbekistan, a major setback for essential intelligence and counterterrorism
work. No less significant, the West lost whatever possibility it previously
had to influence the Uzbek government to reform or open up the system. Its
precipitous condemnation of the government\'s actions, without corresponding
attention to the insurgents, effectively discredited whatever reformist
currents had existed earlier within the Uzbek government. Instead,
Uzbekistan now leans on Russian and Chinese guidance, which gives carte
blanche to the most repressive forces within the Uzbek government. Indeed,
the pro-Western liberal forces that had slowly strengthened their positions
within the Uzbek elite over that past decade have now been almost completely
purged and marginalized." (page 39)

A NEW WAVE OF PERSECUTION MAY BE JUST BEGINING

There is no doubt that persecution against Uzbekistan\'s Protestant Church
has escalated since the May 2005 Andijan incident. And it is clear that the
US can no longer influence Uzbek policy concerning religious liberty, as the
US, a former ally, is now an enemy.

Furthermore, the Islamists are emboldened by the fact that the West is more
interested in the prison conditions and civil liberties of radical Islamists
(HRW calls this "independent Islam") than in the terror they inflict and the
repression and persecution they intend. And the Uzbek government is
emboldened by SCO support to repress anything it wants to repress in any way
it wants to repress it.

A new wave of serious persecution may be just beginning.

-------------------------------------------

The Silk Road paper gives recommendations for a European response. These
include gaining an improved understanding the ideological framework of
radical and terrorist Islamic groups; engaging with reform-minded officials
within governments (not just within opposition groups); support the
counter-narcotics efforts that can cut the main source of funding to
extremist and terrorist Islamic groups; engage in the region and shatter the
isolation that only benefits extremists; foster educational and cultural
exchanges - and more.

The future of Uzbekistan hangs in the balance.

Elizabeth Kendal WEA RLC
rl-research@crossnet.org.au

Links

1) Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | No. 421 | Wed 21 Mar 2007
UZBEKISTAN: PASTOR SENTENCED TO FOUR YEARS
http://www.worldevangelicalalliance.com/news/view.htm?id=977
Uzbekistan: Internal exile for Protestant Pastor.
By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service. 9 March 2007
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=928
See also http://compassdirect.org
For the Russian version:
Leader of illegal religious organization convicted in Uzbekistan
5 March 2007 http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=2739

2) Uzbekistan: Karimov\'s war for the status quo.
WEA RLC News & Analysis. 19 July 2005
WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.
http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/15530.htm

3) Silk Road Paper. July 2006
Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: implications for the EU
by Zeyno Baran, S. Frederick Starr, Svante E. Cornell.
http://www.silkroadstudies.org/new/docs/Silkroadpapers/0607Islam.pdf

4) The Tulip Revolution takes root
By Pepe Escobar. 26 March 2007
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Central_Asia/GC26Ag03.html

5) UZBEKISTAN: What is known about Akramia and the uprising?
By Igor Rotar, Forum 18 News Service 16 June 2005
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=586

6) Documenting Andijan
By Lionel Beehner, Staff Writer. 26 June 2006
http://www.cfr.org/publication/10984/

7) The Andijan Uprising, Akramiya and Akram Yuldashev
By Martha brill Olcott, Marina Barnett Web Commentary, June 22, 2006
http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=18453&prog=zru
"69 minutes of video were taken by two cameramen in the Babur Square in
Andijan on May 13, 2005. We are providing the complete version of the film."

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