A court in Kyrgyzstan has doubled the prison sentence handed down to a popular imam who was earlier this year found guilty of inciting religious hatred and distributing extremist material.
Rights advocacy group Bir Duino said Osh provincial court on November 24 increased Rashot Kamalov’s punishment to 10 years in a high-security facility. A local court in the southern town of Kara-Suu, where Kamalov served as imam of As-Sarakhsi mosque, passed a five-year sentence in October.
The harsher sentence appears to have been by motivated the Osh court’s decision to restore a charge of abuse of office dropped in earlier proceedings.
Lawyers for Kamalov have said they will pursue a further appeal in the Supreme Court.
The severity of the punishment is bound to fan discontent among Kamalov’s numerous supporters in Kara-Suu. The imam’s trial, which lawyers complained was marred by numerous irregularities, was loyally attended by Kamalov’s most devoted parishioners.
The imam was arrested on February 9 following a raid on his home by armed special operations forces. Police found a disk during their search that contained a video recording of a sermon delivered by Kamalov at the As-Sarakhsi Mosque during Friday prayers on July 4, 2014.
Prosecutors have argued that Kamalov’s references to the caliphate in his sermons constituted support for the activities of radical and violent Islamists in the Middle East.
An unknown number of people from Kyrgyzstan, including from Kara-Suu, are said to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of radical Islamist groups fighting there.
Despite an absence of transparent and convincing evidence that the Islamic State group is actively establishing a presence in Kyrgyzstan, authorities have been eager to claim that the terrorist organization has made inroads.
In their intent to marginalize the role of Islam in public life, authorities in Tajikistan are reportedly prohibiting government employees from attending Friday prayers.
Independent news website Asia-Plus based its October 12 report on the ban on testimonies from unnamed civil servants.
The prohibition fits into a broader pattern of pressure against public displays of piety. An informal ban against young men wearing beards is eagerly enforced, while women with veils covering the face can expect to be hauled off the streets by police.
That intimidation is coupled with an ongoing crackdown of what was Central Asia’s only legal Islamic political party – the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan – until it was banned this summer. Almost the entire party leadership is now behind bars pending trials on flimsy claims of involvement in an alleged insurgency.
Moves against government workers attending Friday prayers at the mosque appear to be a recent development and began after the Eid al-Adha holiday, better known as Idi Qurbon in Tajikistan, which was marked this year on September 23.
“Over the last two weeks, after Idi Qurbon, our management forbade us from leaving work to attend Friday prayers,” one unnamed government employee told Asia-Plus.
The website said that the report had been confirmed by the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the Regulation of Traditions and Customs.
Tajikistan’s war on the wrong clothes looks set to step up a gear as the authorities resolve to crack down on anything they perceive as dangerous, radical Islam.
Asia-Plus website reported that a meeting in Dushanbe on August 19 brought together the mayor, members of parliament, city deputies, police, traders and religious leaders for discussions touching on areas of concern, including the flourishing of radical Islam.
Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev appealed to meeting participants to help combat “displays of religious extremism and terrorism” and for all city residents to assist in the battle.
To that end, Ubaidulloev issued instructions for government officials to put an end to the import and sale of clothes alien to Tajiks. That is typically code for conservative Islamic clothing worn by women, anything from hijabs to the niqab, which covers almost the entire face.
What those clothes might be was also spelled out by President Emomali Rahmon during a Mother’s Day speech in February.
“Since ancient times our people have had beautiful women’s dresses, our girls have never worn black clothes. Traditionally, black clothes are not welcome,” Rahmon told mothers ahead of Mother’s Day, which has replaced International Women’s Day in Tajikistan and is marked on March 8.
State television tried to spice up that message some days after the speech by airing a report telling of prostitutes who use the veil to enhance their appeal.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
The Tajik security services are well known for employing heavy-handed tactics as they attempt to stamp out extremism. In recent months, some have reportedly forced men with beards under the razor, tried to ban sales of hijab, and carried on with the usual mass arrests of suspected Islamists. But there is a softer side to counter-terrorism in Tajikistan.
On May 9 the Interior Ministry promised amnesty to Tajik militants in Syria and Iraq who wish to come home. The ministry “is ready to help them return,” the statement declares.
“The Ministry of Interior has received information through its law enforcement agencies that young people have been led astray and are fighting in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Some are now in Turkey and can return home voluntarily. We also inform you that these persons will be exempt from criminal liability,” the ministry’s statement said, without naming any conditions.
Last year the prosecutor’s office in Sughd Province, in the north, offered to amnesty returning fighters. This is the first time authorities have declared a nationwide amnesty.
Authorities are keen to counter messages that the Islamic State is some kind of paradise on earth. On May 7, a man claiming to be a repenting jihadist who had recently returned from Syria spoke to a large crowd in Khujand about his experiences there. Farrukh Sharifov described beheadings, sexual slavery and terrible living conditions. The event, organized by the Interior Ministry, has been widely publicized.
The “sex school” in Kyrgyzstan’s capital that EurasiaNet.org profiled last year has moved to a bigger facility and opened a branch in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The Jade Gift School’s new location on Bishkek’s Bokonbaeva Street includes a larger gymnasium, where men and women learn to exercise muscles used during intercourse. There’s also now a separate room for theoretical instruction, such as courses on sexual fantasy and “playing the flue” – the school’s metaphor for oral sex. The school now also offers yoga, weight training, and customized workout trainings.
“I never expected this to become a full-time job,” confesses Jade Gift School founder and owner Rakhat Kenjebek kyzy, 31, describing how the school started out as a personal project rather than a business.
While working in China in the late-oughts, Kenjebek kyzy became acquainted with traditional treatments for women’s health. When she returned home, she started passing her knowledge around among friends. The circle of people seeking her advice grew wider and she eventually founded Jade Gift in 2011.
The school now employs three sales managers, a social media manager and five trainers. There are about 50 regular students; another 50 or so attend one-time events each month.
In this conservative country, many eschew talking openly about sex. But Kenjebek kyzy says some of her students are girls from religious families. Some confide that they attend classes because they are afraid their husbands will take second wives, she says. (Polygamy, though illegal, is increasingly common in Kyrgyzstan.)
In the ongoing battle that could be known as Tajikistan vs. Islam, Islam has taken some low blows lately: police nabbing bearded men on the street and submitting them to the razor; state television instructing viewers that women who wear hijab are prostitutes.
The latest target in the Muslim-majority country is Muslim-sounding names.
Under instructions from President Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s rubberstamp parliament is considering a bill that would forbid the Justice Ministry from registering names it thinks sound too Arabic, the deputy head of the ministry’s Department of Civil Registry, Jaloliddin Rahimov, told Interfax on May 4.
"After the adoption of these regulations, the registry offices will not register names that are incorrect or alien to the local culture, including names denoting objects, flora and fauna, as well as names of Arabic origin," Interfax quotes Rahimov as saying.
Though the law would not apply to existing names, only to babies born after it is signed, Interfax suggests some parliamentarians are demanding everyone with an Arab-sounding name pick a new, moreTajik-sounding one.
If parents cannot come up with a name on their own, the Justice Ministry is preparing a list of recommended names. It’s unclear if there will be a list for minorities, such as ethnic Uzbeks, who make up approximately 15 percent of the population.
Someone is profiting from Tajikistan’s official Islamophobia, peddling expensive permits purporting to allow observant Muslims to wear a beard or hijab – fashions that are officially discouraged. The permits, adorned with an official-looking stamp, allegedly go for 250 somoni (about $40) each.
In recent weeks, Tajikistan’s secular government has turned up its routine hysteria about the spread of Islamic practice, with state media dutifully declaring that prostitutes wear hijab – a headscarf and modest clothing for women – to drive up their rates, and police reportedly nabbing bearded men on the street and forcing them under the razor. The campaign seems to be part of an effort to liken any Islam outside of state control to terrorism.
The State Committee on Religious Affairs – the body that oversees mosques, appoints all imams, and tells them what to say during their Friday sermons – says the idea of such permits is “absurd,” the Asia-Plus news agency reported April 24. No one has the right to issue such documents, the State Committee said in a statement.
But gullibility is understandable. Anyone can see that freedom in practicing Islam is under assault in Tajikistan and, meanwhile, the government has allowed very few trustworthy sources of information on religious affairs.
The continued departure of young men for jihad in Syria is raising alarm in Georgia’s Pankisi Valley, a Sunni Muslim area that allegedly has seen scores of men leave for the war over the past few years.
Parents from Pankisi have asked for the government’s help to stop the trend. A photo that shows two Pankisi high-schoolers armed and posing before the Islamic State flag in a jihadist training camp has added to the sense of urgency. Police had been searching for the duo since April 2, when they vanished after being seen entering the public school they attended.
Now, attention has begun to focus on Georgian border officers as well. One of the two, 16-year-old Muslim Kushtanashvili, allegedly used his father’s passport to slip through the Georgian-Turkish border. (Georgian citizens can enter Turkey visa-free.)
Angry members of Pankisi’s council of elders have demanded that the government take greater responsibility for blocking such departures at the border. The interior ministry has started an investigation.
“It is a tragedy for an entire nation, when kids are taken to war straight from their school desks,” said Meka Khangoshvili, a Pankisi activist and adviser for the Georgian Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, in an interview with the Kakheti Information Center. She called on the government to step up efforts to integrate the secluded area into Georgian society.
At the same time, according to local media, parents blame individuals they term Wahhabis, who reportedly deny involvement, for the boys’ departure to Syria, and also Abu Omar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi-born commander with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Exasperation also appears targeted at the young jihadists themselves.