A prominent cleric from Uzbekistan is recovering after being shot several times in an apparent assassination attempt in Sweden.
Obid-kori Nazarov was attacked on February 22 by an assailant who lay in wait near his home in the small town of Stromsund, the independent Uznews.net website reported, citing an unnamed associate.
The attacker fled after Nazarov shouted for help. He was taken to a hospital for an operation and there were conflicting reports about his condition, described by Uznews.net as “serious but stable” and by RFE/RL as “critical.”
Nazarov gained popularity as an imam in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, where his fiery sermons led President Islam Karimov’s administration to cast him as an opponent at a time when the main challenge to Karimov’s rule came from clerics with wide public followings.
He still has “tens of thousands of followers and admirers” and “is considered one of the most powerful opponents of the regime,” RFE/RL commented.
The imam fled Uzbekistan for Kazakhstan in 1998 after the Uzbek authorities ordered his arrest on terrorism and extremism charges – crimes that were then, as now, commonly used to imprison Tashkent’s opponents, human rights organizations say. Tashkent accused Nazarov of links with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which espouses violence to achieve its goal of establishing a caliphate in Central Asia and is listed by Washington as a terrorist organization.
Nazarov denies the accusations, countering that he became a government target due to his refusal to tailor his preaching to the narrow confines permitted in Uzbekistan’s state-sanctioned Islamic institutions.
After Nazarov fled, relatives and associates suffered what his supporters saw as reprisals: Three brothers and three associates were imprisoned on extremism charges, and his son Khusnutdin disappeared in Tashkent in 2004.
Nazarov lived in hiding in Kazakhstan for eight years, fearing extradition to Uzbekistan or abduction by the Uzbek security forces. He was granted UN refugee status in January 2006 and promptly fled to Europe after Kazakhstan’s intelligence services rounded up nine of his Uzbek associates living in Kazakhstan and handed them over to Tashkent.
He “never felt safe” in Sweden, Uznews.net reported, moving house frequently and keeping locations secret for fear of the long arms of the Uzbek intelligence services.
Sweden has recently come under fire for deporting nine failed Uzbek asylum seekers to Uzbekistan, where rights activists say they may face torture and mistreatment.
Those who are critical of Tashkent’s rule have previously become targets of violence abroad: Alisher Saipov, an ethnic Uzbek journalist from southern Kyrgyzstan, was gunned down in Osh in 2007, and Fuad Rustamhojaev, an émigré entrepreneur who supported the Uzbek opposition-in-exile, was shot dead in Russia last year. Observers suspect Uzbekistan’s security services were involved in both deaths.