Federal authorities in Idaho have arrested an Uzbek man on suspicion of conspiring with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Washington-designated terrorist group, and providing the organization with bomb-making training.
The arrest of Fazliddin Kurbanov, 30, comes only weeks after news emerged that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers hailed from the former Soviet Union. It is likely to fuel growing concerns in the United States about terror threats emanating from the ex-Soviet states, which regional leaders are already eager to exaggerate to justify their widespread repression against followers of Islam.
Some media in Uzbekistan have seized the opportunity to link Kurbanov to refugees who found asylum in Idaho after Uzbek authorities opened fire on unarmed civilian protestors in the eastern town of Andijan in 2005. Tashkent has long alleged it was battling Islamic militants that day and has sought to tar the refugees as radicals. But the Uzbek media attempts to make a connection are extremely tenuous.
The Associated Press reports that Kurbanov was arrested May 16 in Boise after a grand jury charged him with "conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization," "conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists," and "possession of an unregistered explosive device." The indictment alleges that Kurbanov provided money and computer software to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) "to be used in preparation for and in carrying out an offense involving the use of a weapon of mass destruction."
After causing a storm of speculation by alleging that Uzbek President Islam Karimov had suffered a heart attack in March, exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih has said he sees no role for himself in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
In an interview with the Moscow-based Fergana News website published on May 16, Solih – who many feel discredited himself with the rumor – insisted his information on Karimov's heart attack and subsequent bedridden condition was accurate and said that Karimov’s appearance looking alive and well on state television several days after the reports surfaced did not contradict his information.
Solih said it had taken his group 15 hours to verify the heart attack and confirm it with "several sources" inside the Uzbek government. "According to our information, the day Karimov suffered a heart attack he had an argument with his daughter, Gulnara [Karimova]," Solih told Fergana News editor Daniil Kislov.
Solih explained that the argument between father and daughter was caused by Karimova’s "frivolous" behavior: Uzbekistan's powerful security service, the SNB, intercepted material compromising Karimova before it appeared in the Russian press to "save the family."
That part is certainly credible: Karimova is a dilettante, an aspiring pop star and fashion designer who posts sultry pictures of herself wearing negligee on the Internet: Enough to embarrass any father.
"And she is partially to blame for his suffering such an attack," Solih explained, "but I absolutely did not think that there would be such a fuss about the heart attack because something similar could happen to anyone."
Shokir Fayzullayev, chairman of state-run Uzbekneftegaz, says Uzbekistan exports only 20 percent of the natural gas it produces, blaming faulty and aging infrastructure, much of it dating from Soviet times, for increasing domestic shortages. Fayzullayev was speaking at a May 13 press conference ahead of the 17th Oil and Gas Uzbekistan International Exhibition and Conference in Tashkent on May 14-16.
"Despite [gas] resources and quite extensive networks, we have had problems with supplying gas to end consumers, especially in winter," Uzdaily.uz quoted Fayzullayev as saying.
Fayzullayev says gas shortages could end this year with planned work to upgrade networks and better coordination between gas distributors. "The majority of the existing problems will be solved this year,” he said.
But he also blamed customers for the shortages: "We all know there are different consumers: There are honest consumers who make timely payments and dishonest consumers who do not pay on time.”
Uzbekistan produces over 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually, according to official (and thus not always reliable) data cited by Uzdaily.uz. Most news reports and analysts agree on one thing: Gas output stood virtually unchanged last year, while exports – to Russia and China, especially – increased and are scheduled to keep increasing.
Without ramping up production, how is that possible? Despite Fayzullayev's explanation, many customers – the good ones and the bad ones – are blaming these rising exports for their shortages.
As many as 10,000 people languish in Uzbek prisons for their faith. Once there, they are subjected to another injustice, a religious-freedom watchdog reported this week: They are often denied access to clergy and religious literature.
Oslo-based Forum 18 has collected new evidence that Uzbekistan's brutal penal system prevents prisoners of conscience, and those locked up on dubious extremism charges, from worshipping in prison.
Relatives of Muslim prisoners of conscience told Forum 18 that Muslims "cannot openly pray, or read any Muslim literature – even the Koran."
Forum 18 says that prisoners, both Muslims and Christians, are regularly denied visits by clergy. Even the state-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims and the state-friendly Russian Orthodox Church have limited access to prisons, while clergy from other denominations have virtually no access, the watchdog said.
An official from one recognized religious group, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that authorities did not allow his clergy to visit or conduct religious ceremonies in prisons. Though the Board of Muslims claimed to Freedom 18 that it has no problem accessing prisoners, it declined to specify when it had last visited any prisoners.
According to recent estimates by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Islam Karimov’s government has imprisoned "as many as 10,000 individuals" for their non-violent Islamic religious affiliations.
With foreign trade already under tight government control, Uzbekistan increased customs duties on a number of foodstuff imports from May 1.
The Novyy Vek newspaper reports that, according to a government resolution signed by President Islam Karimov last week, the import duty on meat products rose from 50 percent previously to 70 percent; on pasta it rose from 20 to 30 percent.
Tashkent, a major supplier of produce to CIS countries, slapped a 50 percent duty on imports of fruit and vegetables (up from 30 percent) and a duty ranging from 10 to 30 percent on fresh vegetables.
The duty on imported beer increased to 100 percent of declared customs value, up from 70 percent. The duty on imported cigarettes jumped from about $18 to $40 per 1,000 smokes.
The new taxes are probably attempts to reverse a trend by encouraging Uzbek shoppers to buy local. According to official figures from the State Statistics Committee, food imports increased by about 19.5 percent to $1.2 billion last year, while food exports fell by 55.9 percent to $884 million.
Food already makes up a substantial chunk of the average Uzbek household’s income. The Korzinka.uz chain of supermarkets prices domestic beef at about $8.50 per kilo and domestically produced sausages at between $6.20 and $8.60 per kilo (at the black-market exchange rate). The average monthly salary is believed to be about $200.
Her father is tough when it comes to religion, but it looks like Gulnara Karimova is now reaching out to Muslims. Could this be, some wonder, a bid to assert herself as an inclusive candidate to succeed her father, President Islam Karimov?
The Uzdaily.uz website reports that Karimova, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Mekhr Nuri (“Ray of Mercy”) foundation, awarded grants to 20 distinguished students from ten (officially sanctioned) Islamic educational establishments in Uzbekistan on May 4.
The ceremony was held in Bukhara Region as part of a folk art festival. The Directorate of Muslims, a state body, provided organizational assistance to Karimova’s charity, Uzdaily said. Uzdaily did not specify the size of the grants, but noted that Karimova pledged to improve infrastructure at Islamic institutions as well.
Embroiled in money-laundering and bribery investigations in Switzerland and Sweden, Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, seems to be spending a lot of her time in Uzbekistan lately. Some observers believe Karimova’s active public life at home, and on Twitter, in recent months is a sign of her growing presidential ambitions as her aging father’s health is questioned.
A little-known Las Vegas-based showman crowned Karimova the "Princess of Uzbekistan" in a recent PR stunt.
But as a potential leader Karimova would inherit the nasty consequences of her father's brutal policy toward followers of Islam.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world's most repressive dictatorships, came under harsh criticism from Western democracies during the latest Universal Periodic Review hearings at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. But likeminded authoritarian regimes came to their defense, praising the two for "progress" at improving their records in recent years.
The Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states, is examining the progress the two Central Asian countries have achieved since their first review in December 2008. Ahead of the hearings, Human Rights Watch called on the council "to expose and denounce the ongoing repression" in both countries and to exert pressure on them to "end abuses."
“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”
Police in authoritarian Uzbekistan’s capital are often accused of taking a hard line on fun. This week they’re living up to the reputation.
Citing the hazard bicycles pose to traffic, Tashkent police have launched a campaign to seize bicycles from residents and fine cyclists, according to the private Novyy Vek newspaper.
Novyy Vek reported on April 23 that cyclists were facing fines while bicycle shops have been advised to close down.
The campaign, which began April 21, is linked to the growing number of traffic accidents involving cyclists, the newspaper quotes a police officer as saying. Uzbekistan registered about 3.3 million traffic violations between January and November 2012, according to Interior Ministry figures, but numbers involving bicycles are not available.
One businessman who rents out bicycles told the newspaper that police had seized bikes from clients who were having a chat on the pavement outside his shop. "Each of them was fined 26,500 sums [about $9 at the black-market rate] for unknown reasons,” he said.
Tashkent authorities banned motorcycles and scooters in 2005 because they were "much more appropriate for [carrying out] an assassination than cars," an Interior Ministry official was quoted as saying at the time.
The organizers of a charity marathon in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, have cancelled the event, citing unspecified security threats.
On April 22, several organizations that have been linked in the past to the president’s flamboyant daughter, Gulnara Karimova, said in a joint statement, posted on her organization’s website, that the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure would be postponed and replaced with a charity concert on April 27 in support of "those who have suffered” from recent violence in Boston.
The decision was prompted by security concerns in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings last week, the statement explains.
It is common for authorities in Uzbekistan to cite terrorist attacks abroad as a reason for beefing up security at home. That may make sense. But Uzbek authorities often are also accused of exaggerating threats to justify rounding up suspected dissidents and critics, especially practicing Muslims (which, analysts fear, simply drives believers underground and possibly into the arms of radicals).
"The events in Boston have changed the consciousness of many people," the statement from Karimova’s Fund Forum said, adding that over 222,000 people have taken part in her organization’s charity runs and football matches across Uzbekistan this year. The events were expected to culminate in the charity marathon on April 28.
It's unclear if Karimova, who records under the stagename Googoosha, will perform at the charity concert.
Another Russian mobile giant came under attack in Uzbekistan this week.
Uzmetronom, a website that frequently features leaks and opinions from well-placed sources, reports that Beeline subscribers in Uzbekistan have been experiencing "serious difficulties" with the company’s connection over the past couple of days.
That wouldn’t normally be strange, except that last summer another Russian telecoms firm was forcibly shutdown in what looked like a state-orchestrated corporate raid. At the time, authorities accused MTS’s local subsidiary, O’zdunrobita, of violating equipment-usage terms and of tax evasion. When the plug was pulled on July 17, some 9.5 million customers were forced to flee to other carriers.
Now this, from a website believed to have close ties to the Uzbek security services: "[Beeline] telephones are either showing the complete absence of a signal, even in areas where it has always been stable, or the connection is such that it is impossible to comprehend the words of the interlocutor," Uzmetronom reported on April 18.
Uzmetronom says Beeline’s "vaunted" 3G services have stopped working outside Tashkent altogether, while the company is keeping "total silence" about the problems and whatever actions it has taken to solve them. "Beeline seems to understand perfectly that after the liquidation of MTS the people of Uzbekistan practically have no choice.”