Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
While Kazakhstan has tended to play down the threat, other countries talk it up. Uzbekistan has long been accused of exaggerating the militant menace – which Tashkent says is rising as the United States pulls out of Afghanistan this year – to justify crackdowns on political dissidence.
At the Qashqadaryo trial this week, the prosecution alleged that the six convicted defendants were involved with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a banned extremist movement which hit the headlines last month when it claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on Pakistan’s Karachi airport.
The IMU – which the United States and other Western countries call a terrorist organization – appeared in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley in the early 1990s. Its leaders called for Karimov’s overthrow and the establishment of a caliphate in Uzbekistan. After being driven out of the country, it eventually based itself in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.
These days the IMU is a shadowy movement whose strength is unknown, believed to consist of militants from Central Asian states and beyond. Its ideology has expanded far beyond its original Uzbekistan-based goals to embrace global jihadi aims.
Analysts are skeptical of the movement’s ability to operate in Uzbekistan, where the security services exercise an iron grip. Crackdowns on alleged IMU members are often believed to be an excuse to clamp down on dissidence.