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Sughd Province convicts 10 clerics of extremism

By Negmatullo Mirsaidov

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The Sheikh Muslihiddin Mausoleum is shown in Khujand in June. Orifjon Ergashev, a suspected radical, was deputy chief imam-khatib of the mosque within the same architectural ensemble for the past two years. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]

KHUJAND, Tajikistan -- Tajik authorities are fighting radicalism among the clergy.

Two courts in Sughd Province recently handed down prison sentences to 10 clerics convicted of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned in Tajikistan since 2006.

The B. Ghafurov District Court tried seven of the defendants, while the Khujand city court tried the other three.

"Because seven of the imams confessed their guilt ... they received more-lenient sentences," B. Ghafurov District Judge Khurshed Ali Sangin told Caravanserai in an interview.

Recruitment abroad

The seven defendants in B. Ghafurov District "studied at the Islamic University of Madinah between 1992 and 2007", the court said in its verdict, adding that they all joined the Muslim Brotherhood during their time there.

Upon returning to Tajikistan, they all "actively promoted extremist ideology, intending to recruit members".

Because the defendants all confessed and co-operated, the court issued relatively light jail sentences. Six will serve three years. One defendant was sentenced to three and a half years.

"They all had the same mission, essentially: to expand the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in Central Asia," said Tavakkal Faizullozoda, an assistant provincial prosecutor for especially important cases, told Caravanserai.

The imams earned US $800 to $3,200 (6,295 to 25,179 TJS) per year from foreign sources for "spreading extremist ideology ... and recruiting youth", Faizullozoda said.

6 more imams await verdict

Another six recently arrested imams in Sughd Province are awaiting their own verdicts.

They include Orifjon Ergashev, who studied for seven years abroad and joined the Muslim Brotherhood there. After returning home in 2001, he began working as an instructor at the Khujand seminary. He became imam-khatib of a Khujand mosque and deputy imam-khatib of the central mosque in Khujand.

When Tajik authorities began rounding up members of various banned movements in late 2015, he fled the country. However, in June, he returned home and turned himself in.

Ergashev has confessed that during the past five years he promoted the creation of an Islamic state and received pay from abroad.

Unspecified benefactors "provided us with financial support ... during our studies [abroad]", he said in a video that law enforcement provided to local TV channels. "In exchange, we were supposed to prove our dedication to establishing an Islamic state."

"I came to realise that they were brainwashing me and those like me," he said.

Repentance might help Ergashev, as it helped the 10 convicted clerics.

"Confession, repentance and co-operation with investigators are mitigating circumstances", Sughd Province Prosecutor Khabibullo Vokhidov said at a July 18 news conference, in touching on Ergashev's case. "In some cases, they would justify dropping all charges."

Searching for extremists

Sughd Province authorities are still on the lookout for extremists. On July 20, they arrested three graduates of foreign religious institutions, whom they suspect are members of extremist organisations.

Sughd authorities regularly look for radicalised imams who are trying to recruit residents into extremist organisations, Faizullozoda told Caravanserai.

Authorities have not released the trio's names yet, to protect the progress of their investigation.

"The three individuals detained July 20 came from Kuhistoni Mastchoh District," Faizullozoda said. "[Residents] of that district never used to be part of extremism cases. We will publicise the details later."

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