WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 628, September 14, 2010 MASS JAILBREAK CAUSES RIPPLES IN TAJIKISTAN Escaped prisoners were convicted Islamic radicals, so question now is whether they regroup or simply melt away. By Lola Olimova
TAJIK MEDIA BILL: NOT QUITE THERE YET Media experts call for broader consultations to ensure legislation achieves goal of greater press freedom. By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva FAITH GROUPS UNDER PRESSURE IN TURKMENISTAN Authorities remain unrelentingly suspicious of religious practice. By Dovlet Ovezov, Inga Sikorskaya **** NEW ************************************************************************************ VACANCIES AVAILABLE: http://iwpr.net/what-we-do/vacancies **** IWPR RESOURCES ****************************************************************** CENTRAL ASIA PROGRAMME HOME: http://www.iwpr.net/programme/central-asia IWPR COMMENT: http://iwpr.net/report-news/editorial-comment BECOME A FAN OF IWPR ON FACEBOOK http://facebook.com/InstituteforWarandPeaceReporting FOLLOW US ON TWITTER http://twitter.com/iwpr **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** RSS FEEDS: http://iwpr.net/syndication/builder DONATE TO IWPR: http://iwpr.net/donate **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** MASS JAILBREAK CAUSES RIPPLES IN TAJIKISTAN Escaped prisoners were convicted Islamic radicals, so question now is whether they regroup or simply melt away. By Lola Olimova More than a week after 25 prisoners including alleged Islamists escaped from a high-security facility in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, questions are being asked about the implications for political stability as well as why the jailbreak was allowed to happen Inmates being held at the detention centre of the State Committee for National Security, GKNB, in the city centre attacked and overpowered guards late on August 22, killing one of them. Having obtained a set of keys, they freed other prisoners, seized weapons, changed into military uniforms that they found, and headed for the main gates, killing four more guards whom they encountered. They made their escape in vehicles waiting for them outside the prison. The manhunt continues, with police on high alert and armed officers patrolling airports, railway stations and road checkpoints. Difficult questions are now being asked about procedures at a supposedly top-security prison, for example why so many weapons and uniforms were stored there. Some analysts also argue that the escape could not have been executed unless law-enforcement officials were bribed to look the other way. A statement by the GKNB spoke of lack of responsibility and negligence on the part of prison staff. The head of the GKGB, Khairiddin Abdurahimov, and three of his deputies have since stepped down. The escape is being viewed as an especially serious lapse in security because of the nature of the prisoners involved. These were no ordinary criminals, and their escape has political dimensions as well as embarrassing the security services. Most of the 25 who got away were part of a group of 46 individuals sentenced two days earlier to between ten and 30 years for terrorism, drug trafficking, and seeking the violent overthrow of the government. The case dates back to July 2009, when government forces mounted a drive to crush armed groups operating illegally in the higher reaches of the Tavildara valley in eastern Tajikistan. This remote region was a stronghold of the guerrillas of the United Tajik Opposition, UTO, during the 1992-97 civil war. At that time the insurgents commander-in-chief in the area was Mirzo Ziyo, but as part of a 1997 peace deal he was awarded a post in government. Ziyo reappeared at the centre of events last year. The government said that he had associated himself with a group of Islamic radicals who were running drugs to fund terrorism, but that he had then agreed to cooperate with police as a mediator. He was killed under unclear circumstances during the security operation, and alleged members of the group were rounded up and put on trial. The police say the masterminds behind the escape included the leader of the Tavildara group, Hikmatullo Azizov, who is accused of membership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an outlawed group which launched raids in Central Asia in 1999 and 2000, and which in more recent years has been allied with the Taleban and al-Qaeda based in northwest Pakistan. Only two fugitives have been tracked down and rearrested so far, and neither has anything to do with the Tavildara group. One is Abdurasul Mirzoev, the brother of the former head of Tajikistans Presidential Guard, Ghaffor Mirzoev, who is also in prison. The other is Ibrohim Nasriddinov, who was serving a 23-year jail sentence for murder and weapons offences, imposed by a Tajik court in 2007 following his return from the United States detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. It is unclear whether the Tavildara group will simply disappear from view or will attempt to create trouble for the authorities. Political analyst Ahmadshoh Komilzoda says the escapees could rapidly become a threat if they are not recaptured. Experience from recent years shows that such groups can very quickly find funding abroad, and that other forces can come to join them, he said, in remarks to the Russian news agency Regnum. Saimuddin Dustov, chief editor of the Nigoh newspaper, says the groups members are potentially dangerous, but are not a position to challenge the government. None of them presents a major political danger to the authorities. There are no big political players among them, none with leadership potential, resources and so on, Dustov told IWPR. However, he added,They are a danger to the law-enforcement agencies. It can be assumed that if theyre unable to find a corridor through which to get out of the country, there will be casualties among the police. Dustov and other analysts see the Tavildara case as a sign that more than a decade after the end of civil conflict, government control remains tenuous in the remoter areas that were once opposition strongholds. Were talking about relative control of the Rasht valley and Badakhshan, he said. There are seven former field commanders who live in this area and are in control, three in the Rasht area [including Tavildara] and four in Badakhshan. The authorities engage with these individuals through negotiators who conclude deals with them . All of them are capable of making trouble for the authorities. Last years operation in Tavildara, and the recent escapes, may have upset this delicate set of relationships. Hikmatullo Saifullozoda, spokesman for the Islamic Rebirth Party formerly the main force in the UTO but since 1997 a legal opposition party insists that most former opposition commanders are not troublemakers. Those who are described as ex-opposition and who come from this [eastern] region have never wanted trouble in their home areas, he said. Those among them who were unhappy with the authorities for one reason or another merely wanted to be left alone. Leading political analyst Parviz Mullojonov says the government response to the escape must be nuanced so that it balances the need to deploy enough security forces to maintain order, against actions that are perceived locally as excessive and could therefore provoke trouble. Everything now depends on the authorities flexibility and skill at both national and local level, he said. In general, the population and the former UTO combatants just want to be left alone. Memories of the civil war are too fresh in the Rasht valley. Lola Olimova is IWPRs editor in Tajikistan. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. TAJIK MEDIA BILL: NOT QUITE THERE YET Media experts call for broader consultations to ensure legislation achieves goal of greater press freedom. By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva Journalists in Tajikistan say draft legislation amending the current media law still has numerous flaws and needs further work. They want to see a public consultation process and the inclusion of their own recommendations before the bill goes before parliament.. Member of parliament Olim Solimzoda, who was among those who drafted the bill, says recommendations from media experts and journalists have already been incorporated, and a review process involving parliamentary committees and government could see the document being debated by the full parliament when the summer recess ends this month. The current media dates from 1990, a year before Tajikistan gained independence from the Soviet Union. It has been amended five times since then, but there is general recognition that a more radical overhaul is needed. The amendments, Solimzoda said, mean the law will meet all the requirements of modern journalism. The main reforms set out in it will give journalists greater access to official information. State institutions will be required to issue a formal response to an inquiry from reporters within three days, not a month as used to be the case. This should make officials more responsive to criticism and more accountable, Solimzoda added. Nuriddin Karshiboev, head of the National Association of Independent Media of Tajikistan, NANSMIT, sees the legislation as a real step forward and says it includes almost 90 per cent of the recommendations made by his organisation. His endorsement is not wholly shared by other media professionals and experts, who believe that the bill is far from perfect. There are so many unclear additions to the bill that a journalist could be punished for [publishing] any phrase, according to Khurshed Atovullo, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Faraj and head of the Media Alliance of Tajikistan, adding that the legislations definition of proscribed media content like the promotion of terrorism and pornography are too vague. In its present shape, Atavullo said, the new document amounts to no more than cosmetic corrections to the old law. He added that the Media Alliance was planning to produce an alternative bill. Controversy surrounds a clause banning the publication of material that defames the honour and dignity of the state and the president. The provision is carried over unchanged from the current law, despite calls from rights activists for it to be dropped. Media lawyer Farrukhshoh Junaidov says that for a start, the state is not a person and therefore cannot be defamed, while the president should not enjoy special protection since the Tajik constitution makes everyone equal under the law. Karshiboev while noting that the clause has never actually been used as the basis for a prosecution agrees that it should come out, so as to bring Tajikistan closer to generally accepted international standards for free expression. Salimzoda said that he and the others behind the draft legislation would not back down on this point. We wont remove this article, he said. It does not contravene any principles. We must respect the president as the people voted for him and elected him. Saimuddin Dustov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Nigoh and head of the media rights group INDEM, wants the provisions guaranteeing access to information to include penalties for officials who do not comply, and to set out in more detail how requests are handled. Leading rights activist Nigina Bahrieva has raised concerns about the legislative ban on foreign ownership of media in Tajikistan, which she says constitutes a serious infringement of human rights and contradicts both the countrys constitution and all international standards. If foreign nationals are permanently resident in Tajikistan and pay taxes, why they shouldnt they have a right to set up or found a newspaper? she asked. Again, Salimzoda said this change was not going to happen. Bahrieva, Dustov and others involved in media rights want to see the bill discussed in a wider consultative process before it goes any further. Journalists, media organisations and civil society institutions should do serious work with members of parliament and explain the nuances and different aspects [of the bill] to them, so as to influence the process of approving it, she said. The chief editor of the leading newspaper Asia Plus, Marat Mamadshoev, believes the idea of holding public hearings is not far-fetched. We are ready for it and the parliamentarians will probably go for it, he said. Our parliament is frequently accused of blindly following orders from above. This will be chance to prove that isnt the case. Asked about the possibility of public hearings, Salimzoda said consultations with the Union of Journalists and NANSMIT had been going on for the last two years. Without accepting the idea of a new consultation process, Salimzoda said, The law is still at the discussion phase so were continuing to accept proposals from journalists as before. Aslibegim Manzarshoeva is an IWPR trained journalist in Tajikistan. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. FAITH GROUPS UNDER PRESSURE IN TURKMENISTAN Authorities remain unrelentingly suspicious of religious practice. By Dovlet Ovezov, Inga Sikorskaya Despite hopes that new legislation will ease repression on faith groups in Turkmenistan, there are few signs of the government letting up on the pressure. New legislation on religious organisations currently being debated in Turkmenistans parliament appears to set out a clearer process for applying for official registration, which is mandatory for all religious organisations wishing to operate within the law. A lawyer who works for an international organisation based in the country said he hoped the law would ease the process, since at the moment, the principle of freedom and equality for religions is not observed in our country. However, judging from past legislative changes, the chances of liberalisation seem slim. Since 2003, when the first major changes to the law covering religious groups were made, the trend has been towards greater restriction. First, the number of people required to set up a religious community was raised to 500, and in 2006, the rules were changed so that approval was needed from regional-level local government as well as the justice ministry. Turkmenistans constitution guarantees freedom of confession, but the authorities retain a Soviet-style suspicion of overt religious activity, particularly when this involves smaller faith groups. A member of one Protestant Christian group said officials routinely ignored the rights set out in the constitution. They say they have their own unwritten laws. They dont care about the constitution, he said. Government figures presented in a report to the United Nations in January showed there were 123 religious organisations which had gained official registration around 100 of them Muslim, 13 Russian Orthodox and the rest including Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Hare Krishnas and Bahais. Turkmenistans Roman Catholics were registered as a community only in March. Four more groups including the Jehovah Witnesses have applications pending, but the religious rights watchdog Forum 18 reports that some have already been turned down. I cant understand why they dont want to register us, a representative of the Jehovahs Witnesses told IWPR. There are a lot of us and we are law-abiding. Lack of registration leaves faith groups without even the formal protection of the law, and their meetings are obstructed, members are detained, and religious literature is seized. A member of the Jehovahs Witnesses said constant surveillance and pressure had curtailed their prayer gatherings. Over the last six months, weve stopped meeting in groups and have advised our people not to gather in groups of more than ten, because we are constantly under the watchful eye of the police and secret service, he said. On many occasions when weve been celebrating a holiday or birthday, the police have turned up and ordered us to leave. Human rights defenders say five Jehovahs Witnesses are currently serving prison terms for refusing to be conscripted into the military on conscientious grounds. A sixth man is awaiting trial in the town of Seydi, in the eastern Lebap region. All of them have been subjected to mistreatment and beatings, and one of them has kidney damage, an Ashagabat-based rights defender told IWPR. Requests and appeals from relatives and members of the [Jehovahs Witness] community have failed to prompt an investigation into the use of torture in prison. In practice, official registration offers a faith group very limited freedom to operate if the authorities decide to clamp down on it anyway. In early August, police raided a Christian youth camp near Ashgabat, detaining 47 people. Forum 18, which reported the incident, said police accused the camps organisers of failing to inform the authorities of the planned event. Church representatives insisted their group was registered, and that no special permission was therefore needed for the gathering. A representative of the Krishna Consciousness movement in Ashgabat told IWPR that despite having the necessary registration, its members were kept under surveillance whenever they gathered for meetings. We constantly sense that theyre watching us, he said. Although Sunni Islam is the traditional religion of the ethnic Turkmen majority and other groups like the Uzbeks, open expressions of this faith are also discouraged. As a police officer told IWPR, participation in Muslim rites is frowned on among government officials and public servants. He recalled how he arranged the traditional circumcision ceremony for his son. I didnt want to have problems at work so I agreed with my wife that Id go off on a work trip, and my relatives would call in a Muslim priest and do it all in secret, supposedly without my knowledge, he said, adding that many of his colleagues had done the same. Hayitboy Yoqubov heads Najot, a human rights group in Uzbekistans Khorezm province which is adjacent to Turkmenistan, says his contacts in the country tell him the Turkmen government is working on new measures to tighten up on faith groups for fear of religious extremism. The plans include setting up a database of believers, people who practice their religion across Turkmenistan, installing video cameras in all mosques, and identifying everyones attitude to religion and establish how religious they are, he said. Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a rights group based in Bulgaria, argues that little has changed since President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov succeeded the late Saparmurat Niazov in 2007. Theres been no serious renunciation of the old ways of dictatorial rule, she said. Turkmenistan hasnt yet decided which way it should go. Sometimes it pays homage to the democratic community, and sometimes it tightens the controls, in this case over religious believers. Dovlet Ovezov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPRs senior editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, based in Bishkek. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across Central Asia on a weekly basis. The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and London, which supports media development and encourages better local and international understanding of the region. IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund. The service is published online in English and Russian. The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the publication or of IWPR. REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA: Editor-in-Chief: Anthony Borden; Managing Editor: Yigal Chazan; Senior Editor and Acting Central Asia Director: John MacLeod; Central Asia Editor: Saule Mukhametrakhimova. 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