Central Asia: Islamists in Prison
Asia Briefing N°97
15 Dec 2009
The number of Islamists in Kyrgyz and Kazakh prisons is small but growing, in both size and political significance. Well-organised Islamist proselytisers, mostly imprisoned on charges of religious extremism, are consolidating their position within the informal structures of power behind prison walls. Incarcerating determined activists is providing them with the opportunity to extend their influence among convicts, at first inside prison and then on their release. Problems within jails in Central Asia have been known to seep outside the prison walls; the expansion of radical Islamist thought within prisons is likely to have serious consequences. The paradox of the situation is that, in private at least, political leaders in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are intensely aware that the best way to defeat extremism is to address woeful social and economic conditions, fight the systemic top-to-bottom corruption that besets all the region’s regimes, and in the words of one regional leader, “give people a future”.
Faced with the risk of renewed Islamic insurgency in Central Asia as a result of conflict in Afghanistan and their own policy failures, governments are hitting out at radical Islamists, sending more of them to prison for longer. In Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan the main target is Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), a clandestine political party which aims to create a caliphate in the Muslim world. If in the first part of this decade, Kazakh courts handed down sentences averaging one to three years to members of HT and similar groups, now the sentences are likely to be five to seven years and often longer. In November 2008, a Kyrgyz court sentenced a large group of Islamists to terms of up to twenty years for their part in a demonstration in the south of the country.
Such tough steps give the appearance of an effective policy, but probably advance the Islamist cause. Many Islamists, notably members of HT, view prisons as an important theatre of political struggle. They have targeted, apparently successfully, the obshchak, the organisation created by senior criminal prisoners that has traditionally been the main focus of power in Central Asian prisons. HT and other groups like Tablighi Jamaat have exploited the weakness of underfunded, demoralised and corrupt prison systems to extend their own networks and recruit within the prison population. They are helped by a program of prison mosque building, allegedly funded in part by a major organised crime figure, where their own imams usually preach their brand of radical Islam. Prison directors, meanwhile, are often reduced to mere observers of the power struggle taking place within their own establishments.
In some places Islamists have established a modus vivendi with the obshchak; in others, as they grow in strength, they are competing with it for influence. Some veteran prison officials feel the time is rapidly approaching when Islamists will wield more power than criminal structures in prisons. This development is all the more striking – and ironic – as just a few years ago prison authorities were successfully using criminal prisoners to bring Islamists to heel.
It is easier to establish a picture of the penal system in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the region’s more liberal states, where at least some access is allowed both to prison officials and, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, prisoners. This attitude contrasts markedly with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where conditions are believed to be even worse, and numbers of jailed Islamists much higher, but where there is no access and little information about life behind prison walls. It is highly likely, however, that the developments discussed in this briefing reflect the general picture in the penitentiary systems of the other three countries.
The Islamists’ prison struggle is just one dimension of a political strategy aimed at establishing an Islamic state across the whole region. The security agencies’ failure to differentiate between non-violent religious movements and those openly committed to the armed struggle will deepen the divide between the observant Muslim population and central governments – a particularly dangerous development at a time when the risk of armed Islamic insurgency is growing.
Kyrgyzstan has announced plans for sweeping political and economic reforms, but previous declarations of root-and-branch change did not make the transition from promise to reality. Kazakhstan will preside over the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) next year, but there is little sign that it is interested in addressing its own human rights and governance problems. For over a decade in fact, muddle-through has been the strategy of choice for Central Asia’s rulers. With the increasing armed threats coming from Afghanistan, however, and deepening economic problems, time may no longer be on their side.
Bishkek/Brussels, 15 December 2009