TASHKENT -- Uzbekistani officials are preventing the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) from establishing a foothold in their country.
Hundreds of Uzbekistanis have gone to Syria and Iraq to join the militants, but authorities back home are squashing anybody caught helping the terrorist group.
On July 8, the Margilan city court in Fergana Province sentenced a corrupt visa official to six years in prison for selling exit visas, which enabled ISIL recruits to travel to Syria and Iraq. It fined him 35m UZS (US $12,000) too.
The defendant, police Lt. Col. Odiljon Soliyev, had headed the provincial Entry, Exit and Citizenship (VVG) Administration -- part of the Interior Ministry (MVD). He took bribes from ISIL recruiters.
The court found him guilty of enabling "ISIL accomplices in the country to obtain the [travel] documents they needed" -- for a price, a spokesperson for the city court said July 8.
Soliyev committed a number of other offences such as "extorting money from his subordinates", the spokesperson said.
However, the most dangerous thing he did, in terms of national security, was overseeing a racket for selling exit visas.
Soliyev was convicted of taking bribes "ranging from $200 [588,600 UZS] to $2,000 [5.9m UZS] per person", Arif Atajanov, spokesman for the prosecutor general's office, told Caravanserai.
Officers at various VVG departments in Fergana Province, under Soliyev's guidance, sold exit visas -- which Uzbekistanis need to travel abroad -- so that radicalised citizens could join ISIL in Syria, authorities say.
The sale of such visas enabled Uzbekistanis to join the war abroad. They include 20 relatives of a single Uzbekistani migrant in Turkey, a native of Fergana Province. He recruited 20 of his own relatives to join the militancy in Syria, authorities said last November.
Cracking down on radicals
The Fergana Valley, one of the more conservative parts of Uzbekistan, has been vulnerable to radicalisation at times, according to Tashkent political scientist Valerii Khan.
The eventual founders of the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) found some support there in the early 1990s, but "by 1992-1993 they were defeated and fled the country", Khan told Caravanserai.
The fight against extremism is never finished, though.
"On August 7, 2015, a resident of Namangan city ... was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for trying to smuggle more than 1,000 pro-ISIL pieces of material [into Uzbekistan]," Jakhongir Temirov, a Justice Ministry spokesperson, told Caravanserai.
The extremist hid the flash drives inside candy wrappers, authorities found.
"In November 2015, we exposed the activities of one person, Abdujabbor Toshboltayev of Margilan .. who recruited 20 of his own relatives to go to Syria," Temirov said.
Uzbekistani authorities have been unable to track down Toshboltayev, who is still in Turkey.
2 more visa officials are suspect
The VVG directors for Kokand and Margilan cities, who worked under Soliyev, now face charges of taking bribes from extremists seeking exit visas too, Atajanov said.
To battle the kind of corruption that Soliyev practised, the prosecutor general and the Justice Ministry "on January 20 decided to ramp up efforts in 2016-2017" to fight corruption, Temirov said.
Uzbekistan is following the Istanbul Anti-corruption Action Plan drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Temirov said.
"Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine are taking part too," Temirov said of the mutual monitoring and evaluation programme.
"The plan will establish an independent anti-corruption unit under the prosecutor general's office," Temirov said. "It will provide public access to statistics on corruption-related offences."
"Local departments of the prosecutor general's office. .. meet with local government officials, chairpersons of mahalla [neighbourhood association] committees, school employees, healthcare workers and journalists," Atajanov said. "They talk about the threat of the spread of extremism .... and its ties to corruption and how to deal with this problem."