On October 7, a judge in southern Kyrgyzstan sentenced one of the country’s most prominent imams, Rashat Kamalov, to five years in prison for “inciting religious hatred” and “possessing extremist materials” – part of what prosecutors say was a scheme for sending recruits to Syria to join the Islamic State. Officials with the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), the successor to the KGB in Kyrgyzstan, say up to 500 locals have gone to join ISIS, most from the Uzbek ethnic minority in the south, from congregations like those led by Kamalov.
Security officials though have cast a wide net, and along with clerics like Kamalov, they have cracked down on journalists, lawyers, and human rights groups.
Earlier this year I traveled to Osh to report on the charges against Kamalov. For a brief time, I was facing some of the same charges as those leveled against ISIS suspects, specifically of possessing extremist materials and seeking to overthrow the constitutional order, in my case through the mediaEnjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Lured to Syria
“We thought we would be fighting infidels, but we were fighting other Muslims,” Abdullah, 26, told me in the GKNB prison cell we shared for three days in Osh. Six months ago Abdullah quit ISIS and returned home from Syria. “It wasn’t what I expected.”
Clean-shaven, broad-shouldered, and tall, the ethnic Uzbek wore black rain boots – he had been arrested, along with four friends, from work, a carwash, the same day. They were scattered, along with dozens of other detainees, in eight cells.
Abdullah was lured to Syria by a Salafi cleric called Abu Muslim who ran a private madrassa out of his home in a village outside of Osh. “He told us the Muslims in Syria needed our help, there was a jihad there, and we could practice Islam there in its true form.” Leaving his young bride and his blind, diabetic mother, Abdullah flew to Istanbul, and a day later was smuggled into the ISIS capitol of Al-Raqqa.
Abu Muslim had opened a madrassa near Raqqa for Russian-speaking recruits – more than 150 – and Abdullah spent 10 months there learning Arabic and the ISIS ideology. The food was meager – Syrian flat bread and olive oil – and Abdullah told me he never saw any combat. When they decided it was time to leave, Abu Muslim helped them get out, telling ISIS commanders the men were going to Turkey to get married.
In a separate facility a stone’s throw away was a cell holding Rashat Kamalov, who led a congregation of tens of thousands of people from a mosque in Kara Suu, a city straddling the border with Uzbekistan, 30 km north of Osh.
I had visited Kamalov’s mosque a few days earlier, where the GKNB agents who would detain me on my last day in Osh, had first begun to tail me.
Climbing to the third story of the massive mosque, I could look down upon hundreds of Uzbeks wrapping up their prayers in the courtyard below, and on the other side, across a stream, at Uzbekistan. Uzbek soldiers watched the mosque from their post at the head of a bridge that until 1991 connected the two halves of Kara Suu, when the two countries split from the former Soviet Union.
Kyrgyzstan has seen two popular revolutions since then, but Uzbekistan has always been led by one man, Islam Karimov, who has systematically eradicated his critics, especially since 9/11, using an inflated threat of Islamic extremism. More than 10,000 now languish in Uzbekistan’s prisons, and millions have fled the country, some joining communities like the one in Kara Suu.
When Karimov’s soldiers opened fire on thousands of civilians in the town of Andijan in 2005, just across the border, Rashad Kamalov’s father, who led the same mosque, helped shelter hundreds of them with local Uzbek families.
Shortly after the massacre, Tashkent and Bishkek announced they would be cooperating on tracking down Islamic militants, especially members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global political movement seeking to reestablish the Caliphate. Kamalov’s father was killed in what is likely a joint Uzbek-Kyrgyz security operation in Osh in 2006, and his son Rashad took over the mosque.
The Uzbek minority that is native to southern Kyrgyzstan has had trouble with its own government. In June 2010, rumors of a planned Uzbek separatist movement sparked ethnic riots that killed more than 400 Uzbeks in Osh and the surrounding countryside. Kyrgyz mobs backed by armored personnel carriers, with military helicopters overhead, laid waste to centuries-old Uzbek neighborhoods.
Events like the 2010 clashes have made Kyrgyzstan’s human rights activists skeptical of the benefit of popular revolutions. Tolekan Ismailova, one of the country’s best known rights activists, helped document the involvement of security forces in the 2010 clashes, then had to leave the country for a few months.
“They say you are not Kyrgyz,” Ismailova told me in Bishkek, days after her office had been ransacked by right-wing groups for the second time in a year.
Activists like Ismailova have found themselves being prosecuted for “religious extremism” for what would normally be considered liberal issues, in a bizarre and telling pattern that raises issues about the prosecution of ostensibly jihadist suspects like Kamalov.
In 2012, Ismailova’s organization, Bir Duino (One World) planned to screen a documentary about gay Muslims, titled I Am Muslim and I Am Gay.
Based on the film’s content, the GKNB asked prosecutors to charge Ismailova with being a religious extremist and inciting religious hatred – the same charges leveled against Kamalov. Officials said the charges were made after the film was screened by Kyrgyzstan’s State Commission of Religious Affairs, a body of ostensibly knowledgeable experts on Islam.
Prosecutors routinely ask the body to review evidence – phone recordings, emails, books, and other materials – seized from the suspect. “They said they reviewed the Quran and found I am a religious extremist,” Ismailova told me. “It’s funny, I want to show a film about gays and I am an extremist.”
The trial of Kamalov, for instance, relied heavily on the testimony of government-appointed experts, who examined his statements and concluded he was supporting ISIS.
“We have a large network of radical Islamists, and they really look to disturb things, they say they do not want a secular state,” Ismailova admitted. “But when the GKNB targets minorities, people like Kamalov, or human rights activists, we understand they are not looking for any real extremists.”
The charges against Ismailova were eventually thrown out, but the tactics have been employed by the GKNB since, especially against Bir Duino, which runs a network of lawyers working pro bono on behalf of hundreds of those accused of violence in the 2010 clashes, as well as those who have lately been ensnared in the dragnet against ISIS.
In Osh, I met with Valerian Vakhitov and Khusanbay Saliev, two well-known human rights lawyers with Bir Duino representing ISIS suspects. The pair now faces charges of possessing extremist material themselves – documents like witness testimony or recordings of their clients, things they naturally need to defend their clients.
Some clients are actually former ISIS members – young men like Sardar, a 23-year-old Uzbek who spent a few days in Syria in 2013. After the building next to his safe house in Aleppo exploded one night, Sardar decided the war was not for him, and fled back home. Others seem motivated but incompetent. Iqbal jan and Yusupov Ahmed, both 18 years old, showed up at the Bishkek airport one day and started asking about flights to Syria.
Still others have more tenuous connections – several suspects were arrested by the GKNB after they were found with jihadist propaganda on their smart phones, or in social media profiles. Simply having an image of the logo of a banned outfit is a serious crime in Kyrgyzstan. Dozens have been detained for alleged ties to ISIS based solely on suspicious interactions with the GKNB on Facebook or its Russian equivalent, Adnavaste.
Journalists who have reported on the GKNB have been targeted as well. “To catch suspects, they put up photos of themselves with beards, or hijabs, or weapons, then write to them saying ‘do you want to go to Syria?,’ ” Shohrukh Saipov, an investigative journalist in Osh told me.
Saipov has documented a number of cases where police have arrested suspects through such social media connections, hoping to come up with more evidence after detention. “If they can’t find other evidence, they ask people for money, $500 to $2,000.” In May 2014, Saipov wrote a story detailing corruption in the police as well as the GKNB, which interrogated him and then fought a short-lived libel suit over the story.
During my last meeting with him, Vakhitov reluctantly handed me the indictments for a few clients, along with an expert opinion from the State Commission of Religious Affairs used to argue that Kamalov was an extremist. “Please be careful with these, if they catch you I am not sure how to help you,” he told me. Two Westerners before me had been detained by the GKNB recently when they looked into the ISIS problem, and Vakhitov was convinced I would be next.
“Do you believe in the caliphate?,” asked Assylbek Kozhobekov, the GKNB head in Osh, a short, well-built man who was trying to explain his job to me, 48 hours after I was detained. Along with the documents from Kamalov’s case, police in Osh had planted DVDs of the Imam’s sermons on me, and the State Commission of Religious Affairs had provided its standard one paragraph finding to prosecutors concluding I was carrying extremist material.
The official case against Rashat Kamalov itself rests on a sermon he gave last year on the idea of the caliphate.
“Kamalov said the Prophet Muhammad taught us a caliphate will come, towards the end of times, and if someone doesn’t believe in this he is not a Muslim,” Abdulqadir, a long-time member of the Kara Suu congregation told me before my arrest. “Government-appointed imams never speak about the caliphate, because Hizb ul Tahrir wants it [the Caliphate]. Someone recorded the sermon..Kamalov’s sermons are sold on the streets.”
Hizb ul Tahrir’s generations-long ideological battle for a caliphate is unlikely to bear fruit any time soon, but its pipe-dream has earned it the enmity of Central Asia’s security agencies. Thousands of alleged members have been imprisoned across Central Asia, but the organization works openly in Europe and Turkey.
“There is no caliphate in Islam,” Kozhobekov told me shortly before I was released. He drew me a map of the region, Kyrgyzstan a round blob encroached upon by extremists in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and militant Uyghurs in China, an island of stability that sat, for his taste, far too close to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Hizb ul Tahrir is the first step towards creating ISIS here.”
But Hizb ul Tahrir members point out they have officially condemned ISIS and its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“Baghdadi claims he is a caliph,” Abdulqadir told me, “but our Prophet told us when there is a caliphate everyone will accept it. ISIS has cheated people, they have killed many Muslims.”
Others insist Kamalov discouraged people from traveling to Syria. “When young people came to him to ask for advice, Kamalov told them you have parents here, they need you and the money you earn, staying here is an obligation for you,” Ayyub, the regional head of HuT, told me in Kara Suu.
“Kamalov told people not to join ISIS,” Abdullah, the former ISIS fighter said. “He had a large mosque, maybe there were some people [who agreed with ISIS] there, but Kamalov was not sending people to Syria.”
For rights activists like Ismailova, Kamalov’s prosecution is not because he was encouraging locals to join ISIS. They say he was prosecuted because he was critical of the GKNB’s tactics.
Weeks before he was targeted, Kamalov was a participant in a roundtable that talked about why people left for Syria, Ismailova explained. “He said to officials in the meeting, sometimes you come and raid homes at 4 a.m., you take bribes from innocent people, only because they are religious. You are making it like a prison for them here.”
Umar Farooq is based in Pakistan, where he works as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. He has also written for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Globe and Mail, and The Nation.