Another Uzbek refugee has been deported from South Korea, according to a Korean human rights lawyer.
Jong Chul Kim of Advocates for Public Interest Law writes that an Uzbek man who was living as a refugee in South Korea claiming “he would be persecuted and tortured by [the] UZB [Uzbek] government for his Muslim activities on return to his country of origin,” has been handed over to Uzbek authorities in Seoul. The man’s application for refugee status was rejected on March 21, and he was ordered to return to Uzbekistan the same day.
“According to relevant law, he was supposed to enjoy right to appeal to the Minister of Justice for 14 day after his first instance application is rejected,” Kim writes.
Kim says that in the six years he has dealt with such cases, this is the first time a refugee with the right to appeal his case has been immediately deported. According to Kim, two Uzbek officials met the man at Incheon Airport to escort him back to Uzbekistan. The man’s wife and two daughters live in Seoul on valid visas.
This is not the first time an Uzbek refugee has been deported from South Korea. In 2011, Uzbek businessman Abdullah Rabiev, who similarly fled to South Korea fearing that he would be persecuted for his involvement with an Islamic group, also faced deportation after his numerous appeals for refugee status were rejected.
Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are about to grow a little colder.
Tashkent has said that from April 1 it will cut all natural gas supply to Tajikistan, again. This time, the story is that Uzbekistan needs to reroute the gas to fulfill its obligations to China.
But under an agreement signed in January, Tashkent would send Dushanbe 200 million cubic meters of natural gas annually. To put this in perspective, Uzbekistan produces 200 million cubic meters of natural gas a day. So, Tajik authorities are suspicious that the threat is not so much about gas shortages as politics.
Tashkent has a record of withholding gas from Dushanbe. For example, on January 4, Uzbekistan cut all gas to Tajikistan. After a brief visit from the Tajik vice prime minister, the gas was turned back on.
Local news agencies in Dushanbe have speculated that Tashkent is attempting to punish its upstream neighbor. The two countries have long been at odds over hydropower projects in Tajikistan.
In November, an explosion at a bridge on the Galaba-Amuzang railroad, which routes supplies into southern Tajikistan, left the line inoperable. A few days later, the Uzbek government claimed the explosion was an act of terrorism and vowed it would repair the bridge. But the railroad remains closed. As of February, an official with Tajikistan’s state railroad company said that 298 wagons of material bound for southern Tajikistan have been marooned in Uzbekistan and that three and a half million residents of southern Tajikistan are living under an economic blockade.
Uzbekistan’s long-serving leader Islam Karimov has been granted an extension of his current seven-year term of office, which will now stretch into 2015.
According to a law passed by the Senate on March 23, Karimov will face reelection in spring 2015, though his term officially ends in December 2014.
The new law stipulates that presidential elections will be held 90 days after the official results of parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2014, are published, meaning that voters won’t get to choose their president until spring 2015.
The Senate session heard that the law would “give a powerful impulse to further modernization of the state legal and political system and deepening of democratic reforms and the formation of civil society,” the official UzA news agency reported.
That will no doubt be welcome to the people of Uzbekistan, which has never held an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers.
Like many a Central Asian strongman, Karimov is no stranger to sleights of hand over term limits.
In 1995 he didn’t bother going to the ballot box, using a referendum to extend his rule. In 2000 he stood for reelection in a one-horse race: The “opposition” challenger publicly acknowledged that he had chosen to vote against himself and for Karimov.
In 2002 presidential terms were extended to seven years from five by referendum, prolonging this political survivor’s rule for two more years.
Scenes from the Navruz spring festival in Samarkand.
In the fabled Silk Road city of Samarkand there’s singing, dancing and kite flying, and the city’s a riot of color as women take to the streets in their bright Uzbek silks. Uzbekistan may have put a dampener on Valentine’s Day last month, but it’s celebrating Navruz -- “new day,” the Persian New Year -- in style.
The Navruz spring equinox festival is marked by Turkic and Persian peoples across Central Asia and in places such as Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey (chiefly, in the latter, among Kurds).
Despite unusually freezing temperatures and recent snow on the ground, Samarkand, with its mixed population of Uzbeks and ethnic Tajiks, is embracing the festival enthusiastically. Residents are particularly glad to be marking the end of what’s been an abnormally long, harsh winter.
Children are performing stunts with colorful kites above the majestic turquoise domes of the Registan, and schools are competing to see which has produced the grandest stall this year. The stalls are manned by bowing girls dressed as brides or wearing traditional atlas silks, and they are plying passers-by with free snacks. These are dishes traditionally cooked up for Navruz and believed to fortify the body after the winter.
King among them is sumalak, made of wheat shoots, oil, flour and water. Women make a culinary festival out of this cooking ritual—sumalak must be stirred continuously for 24 hours, and they gather at each other’s houses to help with all that arduous mixing, casting stones into the pot for luck. The people of Uzbekistan attach mystical properties to sumalak: One Samarkand resident said his wife had wished for a son every year while cooking sumalak, and after seven years (seven is a lucky number here) her wish was granted and he fathered a boy.
Authorities in Uzbekistan are increasing their surveillance of Muslims, while showing greater concern about what they wear.
At the beginning of March, a representative from the government-controlled Muslim Spiritual Board in Namangan Region requested that cameras be installed in and around 181 mosques in the area, Regnum reported. Authorities claim the installation of security cameras follows thefts at some mosques.
However, an Uzbek imam living across the border in neighboring Kyrgyzstan told Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service he believes “the authorities are trying to control what happens during prayer, to track what imams say to believers and to see whether young people are attending prayers.”
Also this month, Uzbek authorities have prohibited the sale of religious clothing, specifically hijabs and burqas, at several Tashkent markets. After receiving an oral order, venders at several markets including the massive Chorsu Bazaar, quickly pulled headscarves and other coverings from their racks. Local authorities reportedly confiscated some clothing, reported the Institute of War and Peace Reporting:
Tashkent businesswoman Mutabar, who imports goods from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, still offers the items to customers, but only in secret.
“Islamic clothing is being sold under the counter,” she said. “I am selling it from home, but only to trusted customers.”
Officials in Tashkent confirmed the ban was in place but were reluctant to comment in detail.
Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision:
In an email to supporters, journalists and friends, one of Uzbekistan’s few human rights activists, Elena Urlaeva, is pleading for help from Tashkent’s unrelenting attacks on herself and most recently, her family.
Urlaeva, a leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, writes that authorities are now trying to turn her husband against her to force her to stop her human rights work. In the past, Urlaeva says authorities have attempted to place her adopted son into foster care, and have threatened to commit Urlaeva to a psychiatric hospital – a Soviet-era method of silencing critics that has continued under President Islam Karimov.
In the March 13 email, Urlaeva recounts how on March 12 she returned home from attempting to lead a small protest march to Karimov’s residence, which was blocked by police, to find her husband, Mansur Mashurov, furious.
Urlaeva writes that a police officer had repeatedly called Mashurov, telling him that his wife was breaking the law and instructing him to evict her for holding “illegal human rights activities” in his home.
In an emotional email, Urlaeva recounts how over the course of two days, March 12 and 13, her husband, under what Urlaeva believes is the authorities’ influence, threatened both herself and their seven-year-old adopted son. In detail, Urlaeva describes how she, as well as her friends and neighbors, tried to contact local police to come to her aid, and how the authorities continually ignored her calls for help. Urlaeva believes the authorities are encouraging her husband to act in such a way. She writes:
Lawmakers in Uzbekistan have declared war on toys that harbor foreign values.
Members of the pro-government Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) party in the lower house of parliament have proposed a bill to protect the “moral health” of children and teenagers by limiting the import of foreign-made toys, Regnum reports. A supporting article by government-run UzDaily.uz has denounced toys “that harm the spiritual and moral development of children and teenagers and lead to sadistic tendencies.”
“Unfortunately, right now, our children mostly play with toys that are produced outside the country and are not tied to our national traditions,” UzDaily explained.
This is not the first time authorities in Tashkent have sought to staunch so-called foreign values. In 2010, authorities launched the “Year of Harmonious Development of this Generation” and passed a series of laws that allowed the government “more effectively to protect children and formulate their respect for national values and tradition.”
In April 2011, those laws led Uzbek authorities to finger another culprit in society’s moral decline—rap music. They created a special committee to censor rap lyrics and oversee future recordings by Uzbek rappers.
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.