TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan's successful efforts in reintegrating extremists who have returned from fighting in Syria and Iraq are being studied by other Central Asian countries to glean insight on how to best rehabilitate their own returnees.
Government officials and analysts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan gathered in Tashkent and Termez March 3-5 for a conference to discuss Uzbekistan’s experience in the rehabilitation process.
The conference, titled "Central Asian Dialogue on Rehabilitating and Reintegrating Returnees from Syria and Iraq: Uzbekistan's Experience," aimed to find effective and practical proposals that can subsequently work in other Central Asian states, analysts and officials said.
The mayors of Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as well as officials from the Central Asian countries' interior ministries were among those who participated in the discussions.
The conference included presentations on "Political and Legal Aspects of Reintegrating Repatriated Citizens: An Overview of the National Experience" and "The Role of Social Programmes in the Rehabilitation Process," the Uzbekistan National News Agency (UzA) reported.
Uzbekistan has extensive experience when it comes to returning extremists to a peaceful life. In 2019, during operations Good Deed 1 and 2, 261 women and children were repatriated from the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq. Previously, media reported the number of returnees as 218.
Four hundred seventy-two extremists received pardons, and the government removed another 20,000 citizens from blacklists. It has stopped keeping such lists.
To rehabilitate and reintegrate returnees in Uzbekistan, the government enacted a host of measures to provide them with psychological and material assistance, said analysts at the conference.
In addition, it created access to educational and social programmes and created opportunities for employment and housing.
Other Central Asian states are looking toward Uzbekistan to learn from reforms the country has implemented, said Tashkent-based political scientist Umid Asatullayev.
"Initiatives like Operation Good Deed are encouraging other countries to work on bringing their citizens back from conflict zones," he said.
Uzbekistan's experience is especially important because until 2016, it had an entirely different, harsh policy toward extremists, he said.
"It was a 'one-way ticket'. If you came under suspicion once, there was no way out. You had no chance," he said. "That only radicalised people further."
In addition, last August Uzbekistan closed its notorious Zhaslyk prison, where human rights organisations found evidence of torture. The prison opened after a series of terrorist acts in 1999, and its inmates included terrorists and extremists.
Reasons of radicalisation
During the conference, Uzbek analysts shared their views on why Uzbek women left for Syria and Iraq.
"About 60% of the repatriated women we studied left for Syria in 2016–2017, when the war was already in full swing. To bring yourself to take such a step, knowing that there's a war going on, you need to have major reasons," Bakhtiyer Babajanov, a specialist from the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, was cited by Podrobno.uz as saying.
The main driver was the effective promulgation of the "Islamic State" (IS)'s ideology, and its recruiting success stemmed not only from skillful promotion but from mistakes by government agencies in Central Asia, said Babajanov.
He noted the generally poor education of women attracted by the so-called "caliphate".
"Almost all the repatriated women were low-performing students. I think their low level of education encouraged them to leave [Uzbekistan]. It meant they couldn't assess the reality of the world or understand what was truly happening," Babajanov said.
Returning women from conflict zones
The conference participants also traveled to Termez for a firsthand view of the Uzbek government's reforms. In particular, they learned about the initiatives of Barkaror Khaet, a non-governmental organisation, which works to integrate women returning from conflict zones.
With the help of volunteers, these women are trained in sewing, candy making and folk crafts.
"We learned a lot by coming to Surkhandarya [Surxondaryo] Province," Lyubov Rysakova, a specialist from the Centre for Psycho-social and Legal Support for Minors in Almaty, Kazakhstan, was cited by UzA as saying.
"I was especially struck by the work being done to determine the role of religious components in the rehabilitation process. I decided that when I go back to Kazakhstan, I'm going to apply this experience to what I do," she said.
Women were afraid to go home because they feared prosecution, said Fariza Ramazanova, an analyst from the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies.
However, these women received amnesties and pardons, she said, according to Podrobno.uz.
"The repatriated women were all interrogated with lawyers present," Ramazanova added. "They voluntarily wrote confessions ... and then wrote to the president requesting clemency."
"The courts then issued rulings on their cases. Some received amnesty, meaning that they were immune from any liability, while others were found guilty but not imprisoned," she said.