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A Nation Battles Its People

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bosit Ibragimov died Oct. 17 in his prison bed. Officials said the cause of death was heart failure. He was 32.

Family members who brought his emaciated body home have a hard time accepting the government version. They believe Ibragimov was starved and tortured to death because of his devotion to Islam.

Uzbekistan has become a prominent U.S. ally in the battle against terrorism. But in this former Soviet republic, combating terror has a different meaning.

For more than three years, the government has ruthlessly suppressed freedom of speech and religion on the grounds that the nation is threatened by Islamic extremists, including the shadowy Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

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Human rights activists estimate that the government has imprisoned 7,700 people solely for their religious or political beliefs. Court evidence is often fabricated, they say, and the accused are routinely tortured into confessing. On occasion, prisoners such as Ibragimov come home in a burial shroud.

“Uzbekistan’s policy must be considered state terrorism against its own people,” said Kudrat Rasulov, a pro-democracy activist here.

Although the United States has condemned human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and has worked to free individual prisoners, the war in neighboring Afghanistan has brought the American government and the former Soviet republic into alliance.

Of the six countries that ring Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has emerged as America’s most dependable friend. Its autocratic president, Islam Karimov, has allowed the U.S. military to station at least 1,000 troops on a former Soviet military base near the country’s southern border. From there, U.S. helicopters can reach Afghanistan for commando or search-and-rescue operations.

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During the last five years, the two countries have quietly developed a close military partnership, including the training of Uzbek soldiers by U.S. Special Forces. But human rights activists worry that the Bush administration’s need for Uzbek military help will stifle any move toward democracy. Support for Karimov’s regime, they fear, will breed resentment toward America among the predominantly Muslim population.

Karimov, who has declared his willingness to shoot extremists himself, contends that his crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists is necessary to prevent a Taliban-style rebellion here.

In September, President Bush suggested a willingness to tolerate the Karimov government’s approach to extremism when he singled out the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and elevated it to the top tier of international terrorist organizations.

Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network, Bush told Congress, “are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad [and] the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.”

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But to human rights activists, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is hardly in the same league with Al Qaeda. It has few supporters at home, and most, if not all, of its members have fled to Afghanistan to join forces with the Taliban regime. There are no signs that the group has been active in Uzbekistan for more than a year.

“It was quite a surprise to see them held up as the same kind of danger as a group like Al Qaeda,” said Acacia Shields, the Central Asia coordinator for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “I can read that only one way: a favor, a quid pro quo to the Uzbekistan government in return for military cooperation against Afghanistan.”

Last week, the Bush administration again appeared to endorse Karimov’s methods when the State Department declined to put Uzbekistan on a list of countries that engage in the persecution of religious believers. Human Rights Watch criticized the omission as a further concession to Washington’s new military ally.

Before Sept. 11, few Americans could find Uzbekistan on a map. It sits at the center of a turbulent region, surrounded by troubled neighbors--Afghanistan as well as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

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In the 1980s, Uzbekistan experienced a period of openness during the perestroika years of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. For the first time in decades, Uzbeks could openly practice religion. But the Gorbachev years turned out to be the peak of personal freedom.

When independence came with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan remained under the firm control of Karimov, the republic’s Communist-era leader. He eliminated the democratic political opposition, took control of the media and, human rights activists say, gave the secret police a free hand to crush his rivals.

Many Uzbeks began to rediscover their religion as, in the absence of opposition parties, mosques became the focal point of dissent.

Here in the fertile Fergana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan, Islam is at its strongest and the crackdown on dissident believers has been harshest. The valley, Uzbekistan’s most populous region, has long been considered the likely starting point for Islamic rebellion in Central Asia.

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Many Uzbek Muslims believe that the Fergana, which includes parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, should become the center of an Islamic state stretching from western China to the Caspian Sea and governed by Islam’s strict Sharia law.

The Fergana Valley city of Namangan, the third-largest in the country, is the birthplace of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Shoazim Minovarov, first deputy chairman of the government Committee for Religious Affairs, said the group emerged in the mid-1990s as a movement to impose a Taliban-style moral code on the people of the valley.

“They used to beat women for coming home late,” he said. “They used to beat and punish teenagers for smoking. If they saw a couple walking down the street and found they were unmarried, they would beat them as well. They wanted to force Sharia law on the Fergana Valley with their wild and unlawful ways.”

Today, residents of Namangan say they don’t recall Islamic fundamentalists engaging in that kind of behavior. But in late 1997, members of a criminal gang decapitated a police officer and placed his head on a stake outside the police chief’s home.

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It was most likely the result of a dispute over money, but one of the killers, Talib Mamjonov, claimed in court it was Islamic justice. “To cut heads, to chop hands, it is allowed,” he said. “It’s jihad.”

The incident sparked a government crackdown on religious expression. Karimov closed 900 mosques, many of them in the Fergana Valley. Religious organizations were required to register and abide by stringent guidelines, and those that refused were banned. Religious clothing and other signs of piety were outlawed: Men wearing long beards were arrested and ordered to shave; women wearing head scarves were expelled from universities.

Thousands of Muslims were arrested and sent to prison on fabricated evidence, including bullets and banned leaflets planted by police, say family members and activists. Prisoners were hanged by their feet or wrists, beaten, shocked with electricity and raped, according to Human Rights Watch.

The government harassed imams who didn’t praise the president during prayers; fearing arrest, several fled the country. Unable to find them, the government imprisoned their male relatives instead. Wives and mothers were forced to attend “hate rallies,” at which they were denounced by neighbors.

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In February 1999, at least five car bombs went off at nearly the same time outside government buildings in Tashkent, the capital, killing 16 people. Karimov said the blasts were a plot to assassinate him, and he stepped up his campaign of repression.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan denied responsibility for the blasts. The government rounded up a handful of men who confessed that they were members of the group and had planted the bombs.

In the summer of 2000, a band of movement fighters crossed the border from Tajikistan, killed several law enforcement officers and kidnapped four Americans. The Americans escaped and, soon after, government troops gunned down the attackers.

Since then, said Minovarov, the government official, the group has confined its operations to Afghanistan. The movement is believed to have more than 300 core members and as many as 3,000 followers. Minovarov said its leaders are in close contact with Bin Laden.

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“I think George Bush was right when he described the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as one of the most dangerous terrorist groups,” Minovarov said. “The group could have done a lot of damage to stability in Central Asia. The members are fanatics capable of terrible acts like what happened in the United States.”

Today in the Fergana Valley, the suppression of extremist Muslims appears to have been successful. There are no outward signs of support for the organization or another banned religious group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation. The streets are peaceful. Stores sell vodka and men drink openly. Discos play loud Western music. Only a handful of old men wear beards.

But under the surface, repression is taking a harsh toll.

In the household of Zohida Otakhonova, there are no men left. Her father, husband and two brothers have been arrested and sentenced to years in prison for what the government says were anti-state activities. Family members say the men did nothing more than peacefully practice their religion.

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“The truth is, Karimov gave the power to the police and local authorities and they do whatever they want,” Otakhonova said. “If they don’t like somebody, they just arrest them.”

Rights advocates say that at least 16 people have died in prison or police custody as a result of torture during the last three years.

By chance, two of them were 32-year-old men who died within a day of each other in Tashkent last month. In both cases, the official cause of death was given as heart failure.

Arrest by Police Can Prove Deadly

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In one instance, according to Human Rights Watch, police arrested Ravshan Haidov in the capital Oct. 17 for allegedly having connections with Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the creation of an Islamic state.

His body was sent home the next day. Those who saw the corpse said his neck and one leg were broken, his back was injured and his body was covered with bruises, according to the rights group.

Bosit Ibragimov’s death was slower in coming.

He had served two years of a 12-year sentence for anti-government activity. Family members said his crime was meeting with friends to discuss the Koran at a gathering that was not officially sanctioned.

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He was being treated at a prison hospital in Tashkent when two family members were allowed to visit him Oct. 16. They said he was so weak from hunger that he had to be carried to a chair and could hardly hold up his head. Guards refused to let the relatives give him food, they said.

The next day, they went to see prison doctors about Ibragimov’s condition and learned he had died early that morning. His distraught mother, Fatima Ibragimov, a nurse, said he had a kidney ailment probably caused by repeated beatings but had no history of heart disease.

“He didn’t do anything. He was innocent,” she said. “They imprisoned him and tortured him and starved him in prison.”


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