A reverse side of struggle against ISIS in Central Asia

How did members of opposition emerge as jihadist?

Often, the authorities of the Central Asian states fight against supporters of the so-called "Islamic states" by using the actions of their political opponents to prosecute their family members. In particular, under the slogan of combating Islamic extremism Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has been repressing the leaders of Islamic Revolutionary Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and their family more than two years.

It should be noted that the IRPT was the largest opposition party in the country and the only Islamic political party that officially registered in Central Asia. Two years ago, on September 29, 2015, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan declared the IRPT as a terrorist organization that threatened the security and stability of the state. Now the activities of the IRPT are prohibited, its leader Said Abdullo Nuri signed a peace agreement with the President Emomali Rahmon at the end of the civil war in Tajikistan in June 1997.

The court decision stated that the party was directly associated with the attempt of mutiny, undertaken in September 2015 by the Deputy Defense Minister, General Abdukhalim Nazarzoda. The rebellion was suppressed, and in mid-September the authorities arrested virtually the whole IRPT leadership. Only the leader of the party, Kabiri Muhiddin, escaped arrest because a few months before these events he had left for Europe.

On June 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of Tajikistan sentenced the Deputy Leaders of the IRPT Umarali Hisainov and Mahmadali Haitov to life imprisonment, 11 party activists up to 28 years of imprisonment. The court found them guilty of terrorism, religious extremism, a coup d’état attempt, the overthrow of the constitutional form of the government and murder. According to Amnesty International, the trial did not meet the requirements of fair trial and is clearly of a political nature. The UN condemned the verdicts to the leaders of the IRPT.

Today, the whole arsenal of the state’s punitive machine is directed not only against activists of the party, but also against members of their family. Authorities took the passports from many wives and children of convicted IRPT members, so that they could not leave the country. Many relatives lost their employment. The fiscal authorities of the country have closed or confiscated medium and small businesses, which belonged to members of the IRPT. The property of the party was also confiscated. More than 10 relatives of the party leader Mukhiddin Kabiri were detained, including his 95-year-old father Tillo Kabirov, who died in October 2016. After this, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern over the repressive policies of the Tajik government against the relatives of the leader of the IRPT.

State television and pro-governmental media call convicts "enemies of the Tajik people." Due to the call of officers of the government, from time to time Tajik youth burn portraits of opposition leaders, throw stones at their homes, throw eggs at the relatives of convicted IRPT members. All this is reminiscent of the times of Stalin's repression which were subjected not only to "enemies of the people" but also members of their families. Because of fear of physical violence and political repression, more than 1,500 IRPT activists and their family members left the country. On June 12, 2017, the IRPT political council made a statement from Germany expressing its outrage at the persecution of relatives of its activists in Tajikistan and urged the world community to intervene. But this is hardly affecting the government. 

Thus, the President Emomali Rahmon skillfully used the threat of Islamic radicalism and the struggle with ISIS jihadists to eliminate the political opposition represented by the IRPT. In the absence of real political competition, the Head of the state strengthened his authoritarian power, appointed his son the mayor of the capital, daughter - the head of the presidential administration. The president decided to create the most comfortable conditions for the transfer of power by inheritance using a monarchical pattern of repressive methods not only against opponents but also their closest relatives.

No One Writes to the Colonel Halimov

Four brothers of the past commander of the Special Police Force of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan, Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, who joined ISIS militants in April 2015 due to religious belief, were killed. It is known that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appointed him to the post of "Minister of Military Affairs" of the Islamic state. Because of his rich background he became the iconic agitational figure of the Caliphate, who several times urged Tajik migrants in Russia to join the jihad. He stated that they had become "slaves of the disbelievers ", instead of being "slaves of Allah", after which he called his compatriots to go to Syria for war. At one time, the US State Department announced a $ 3 million reward for the information on the whereabouts of Halimov. On April 15, 2017 the British magazine “The Times” reported that the Tajik colonel was liquidated in consequence of the air strike in the west of Mosul, but so far there is no concrete confirmation of this.

On July 5, 2017 full blood brothers of the disgraced colonel Gulmorod, Sultonmurod Halimov and Fozil Halimov, and his nephew Afzal Abdurashidov and their close relative Naim Rahmonov were murdered by covert means of interior ministry member. They were buried by the relatives in Darai Foni village without washing and “Janoza” ceremony. Under Islamic canons the man who fought on Allah track and fell down on the battlefield is called “Shakhid”. So, shakhid will not be washed (do the ghusl) and buried in their clothes. Also three his brothers, Ali, Komil and Nazir, were arrested.

According to law enforcement authorities of Tajikistan, relatives of Halimov Gulmorod intended to cross the Tajik-Afghan border in the vicinity of Chubek village and join ISIS.  Allegedly on the Afghan side of the Pyanj River, the brothers and relatives of Colonel Halimov were awaited by Islamic state militants. But the probability of this version raises deep suspicions, as the authorities of the country have started using punitive technologies against the innocent relatives of Colonel Halimov.

For example, in June 2017, the Dushanbe City Court sentenced the son of a runaway colonel, Gulmurod Behrouz who had just graduated from school, to 10 years in prison. According to the investigation, the young man maintained contact with his father and wanted to flee to him who was in Syria. But at the trial which was held in closed mode, no evidence was given of his guilt. He himself declared his innocence. According to him, after his father's escape, he had never contacted him, and he found out about his father’s fate from social media platforms. According to the statement of the first wife of the runaway colonel Nazokat Murodova, due to financial difficulties she could not hire a lawyer for her son. Her son did a small business to help his family financially, and now they are left without a breadwinner and live in the grip of poverty. She does not intend to appeal the verdict to a higher court, since she does not believe in the justice of the judges. She added that the authorities fulfilled the political order and made her son a victim in the fight against Islamic radicalism, although by the law her son should not be responsible for the actions of his father.

On July 4, 2017, the authorities of Tajikistan arrested another nephew of the "ISIS military minister", F. Halimov who was extradited from Russia to Dushanbe. He is the son of one of the six brothers of the runaway colonel. He is accused of recruiting Tajik youth for jihad in Syria on the side of the Islamic state.

The analysis shows that the personal mistake of Colonel Gulmurod Halimov to join ISIS made a social outcast not only of his blood brothers and family members, but also of all fellow villagers in Darai Fony village in the south of Tajikistan, where he was born and raised. Today, all the power of the repressive apparatus of the state is directed against the inhabitants of this village. One of the residents of this village, on condition of anonymity, informed us that Stalin's repression had returned to them, when the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs shot down "enemies of the people" without trial and investigation, and expelled members of their families to Siberia for hard labor.

ISIS is a convenient lever for the authorities of Central Asia in the fight against political opposition

Unfortunately, lawyers, local human rights organizations, the Human Rights Association in Central Asia and the regional offices of Human Rights Watch are forced to turn a blind eye to the obvious facts of human rights violations in lawsuits related to Islamic radicalism. Opposing the authorities may turn into accusations against them as ISIS extremists. Recently it happened, for example, the well-known Tajik lawyer Buzurgmekhr Yorov who defended the leaders of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, and himself was sentenced to 23 years imprisonment on October 6, 2016. He was found guilty of "fraud", "a mass appeal for overthrowing the constitutional order", "incitement of national or religious hatred." The court also condemned for 21 years the lawyer Nuriddin Makhamov, who defended his colleague Buzurgmkhar Yorov. Thus, the authorities wanted to teach a lesson for all lawyers and human rights defenders who wanted to protect "Islamic radicals" in the future.

Recently, authoritarian rulers of the Central Asian states have successfully mastered a new trend, blaming all of their political opponents for links with the jihadists of the Islamic state. It turned out that this is a very convenient screen to justify its repressive actions. In the case of criticism by Western European countries, the United States and international organizations about human rights violations, democratic norms and censorship of freedom of speech, authoritarian leaders of Central Asia unanimously affirm that they are fighting ideological supporters of ISIS. Indeed, if the entire civilized world fights against Islamic extremism and international terrorism, the Western powers will not defend the one who is accused of having links with Islamists. Thus, the rulers of the five Central Asian republics have learned to benefit from the world struggle against religious extremism, through which they strengthen their power and pursue oppression against their political opposition.

In January 2017 one of the critics of the government of Kyrgyzstan, former parliamentary deputy Maksat Kunakunov was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with the confiscation of his personal property "for the attempted coup and the financing of the local cell of the international terrorist group ISIS”. Closer to the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan which will be held in October 2017, the conveyor of political repression against opposition leaders has intensified. So, on April 17, 2017 Pervomaisky district court of Bishkek sentenced strong opponents of the president, opposition politicians Bektur Asanov, Kubanychbek Kadyrov, Ernest Karybekov and Dastan Sarygulov to 20 years imprisonment for "attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and to seize power." The accused at the trial which was held in closed mode categorically rejected the accusations and said that the authorities pursued them for their opposition activities. Also, political repression touched prominent leader of the opposition Ata Meken party Tekebayev Omurbek and Sadyr Japarov, who were arrested on the eve of the presidential election. Today, the trial of them continues. But it is already clear that he cannot take part in the upcoming elections. Thus, President Almazbek Atambayev used the threat of Islamic radicalism for the repression of the political opposition and for the transfer of power to his successor the current Prime Minister, Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

With the emergence of the so-called "Islamic state" in the Middle East and the activation of the Taliban militants, ISIS in Afghanistan, the political regimes of Central Asia have found a convenient political tool to influence public sentiments and to distract society from economic problems. As you can see by the analysis, the heads of the region through the threat of ISIS have been and are clearing the political field of opponents, pursue their opponents and strengthen their authoritarian regime. By the decision of improvised courts, the oppositionists easily turn political figures into criminals by accusing them of being ISIS supporters. The authorities are at work to further develop such methods that develop a negative attitude towards the opposition party in their society. The presidents of the five former republics of the Soviet empire whose population is Sunni Muslims, dream of having an opposition only characterized under the ISIS grouping, so that overseas society does not raise questions about their methods of fighting in order to continue "maintaining stability."

But the authorities must understand that the constant accusation of the opposition in connection with Islamic radicals is beneficial, first of all, to local Wahhabis and Salafis who bear the idea of building a Caliphate in Central Asia. Supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIS will try to join their ranks at the expense of those who suffered from the repression of the authorities and the injustice of corrupt courts. The repression of the opposition gives additional radical arguments to the recruitment of new jihadists into the hands of radical Islamic groups. In order to successfully resist the ideology of radical Islamism, the authorities need to improve the social and economic conditions of the population, carry out radical reforms of the judicial branch of government and law enforcement agencies, and eradicate corruption in state structures.

Uran Botobekov

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam

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