Terrorism

Tajik trial of Muslim Brotherhood suspects continues amid crackdown on extremism

By Negmatullo Mirsaidov

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Chorkukh village, Isfara District, can be seen in this photo taken shown July 31. In January, police arrested Firdavs Rakhimzoda, leader of the jamoat (municipality), for involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]

KHUJAND -- Tajik authorities in Dushanbe and Khujand are continuing to try scores of suspects charged with being members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood amid a wave of arrests of members of various extremist groups.

Police arrested 178 suspects in January for being part of the group, which the Tajik Supreme Court banned nationwide in 2006.

According to the Interior Ministry (MVD), 134 suspects, including two Egyptian citizens, are defendants in a trial taking place in Dushanbe.

The Supreme Court is reviewing the criminal case, which began July 7.

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Khujand State University is shown August 6. In January, police arrested three instructors at this university on suspicion of involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]

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The village of Chorkukh is shown in 2006. In the early 2000s, women here still wore the paranja. [Negmatullo Mirsaidov]

Meanwhile, in Khujand, 44 suspects have appeared as defendants -- 23 before the provincial court and 21 before the municipal court, according to the Sughd Province prosecutor's office.

In the first half of 2020, a total of 274 suspected members of extremist organisations were arrested, said Interior Minister Ramazon Rakhimzoda at a news conference August 3.

Those arrested included 203 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, 27 of the "Islamic State" (IS), 17 of the Salafi movement, eight of Jamaat Ansarullah, four of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (PIVT) and one from the Taliban, say authorities.

The detainees included instructors at universities and colleges, members of the clergy and graduates of foreign Islamic universities.

"The arrest of so many detainees can be explained because many existing cells were communicating with each other, and had residents of both the southern and northern districts of the country," a source at the Provincial Directorate of the MVD for Combating Organised Crime in Sughd Province said on the condition of anonymity.

"Both we and the security agencies had to look into active and dormant groups, both guilty and innocent ... Some detainees were let go when it was discovered that their contacts were inadvertent," the source added.

The seeds of pan-Islamism

With the end of Tajikistan's five-year civil war in the late 1990s, the country enacted broad religious freedoms, opening the door for co-operation with the broader Muslim world.

This co-operation became especially noticeable in education, in which organisations aiming to provide assistance for improving Arabic teaching sprang up.

The first instructors from Arab countries appeared in Khujand between 1999-2005. They had unlimited authority, extending to direct participation in student admissions.

It was during this period that fundamentalist ideas penetrated the minds of many young Tajiks, according to observers.

"At the time, it didn't occur to many people that Muhammad Amin Khalifulla of Sudan, Muhammad Sidik of Egypt or Abdulla Hamdam of Syria would spread the ideas of pan-Islamism among Tajik students," said Islom Karimov, chairman of the Oriental Studies Department at Khujand State University.

Karimov was referring to instructors whom the Oriental Studies Department at Khujand State University invited with the goal of expanding the study of Arabic. They are in custody.

Sending an educational raiding party from the Arab world to Tajikistan was natural in the late 1990s, said Faizullo Barotov, a former director of the Centre for Islamic Studies under the President of Tajikistan and now a member of parliament.

"Our country opened all its doors to the global community ... For Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, Tajikistan's open-door policy was a good opportunity to carry out its plans not only in the republic itself but also, if possible, in all of Central Asia," Barotov said.

"To accomplish ideological plans, there was no more suitable setting than the educational environment," he said.

"Seeds planted in those years could sprout later, perhaps after decades," said Karim Komilov, chairman of the Journalism Department at Khujand State University.

Those arrested in northern Tajikistan in January included three 2004–2005 Khujand State University graduates who all became instructors at their alma mater, according to the Sughd Province prosecutor's office.

"The fact that among the suspects were ... the first graduates [of the Arab instructors] confirms that their ideas could take hold in people's minds," Komilov added.

Tough measures

In 2005-2006, Tajik authorities made changes to domestic policy over concerns regarding the Islamisation of the country.

These measures included closing madrassas, reducing the number of mosques and dismantling religious organisations.

"The firm policy on radical ... extremist organisations requires the followers of many extremist organisations to switch to operating under strict secrecy, but thanks to close co-ordination of the actions of Tajikistan's law enforcement agencies, so-called sleeper groups can be found," said Tavakkal Faizullo Akhmadiyen, an aide on highly sensitive cases to the Sughd Province prosecutor.

"These are educated, fairly savvy people who are patiently but persistently promoting the ideas of creating an Islamic caliphate ... poorly educated people or malleable youth can easily fall into their webs," Akhmadiyen added.

"An increase in recruitments of minors to extremist activity is causing alarm" in northern Tajikistan, Khabibullo Vokhidov, the Sughd Province prosecutor, said at a news conference July 17.

Vokhidov attributed the situation to lax supervision by both families and educational institutions.

"While in the first half of 2019 three criminal cases for the recruitment of minors were opened, in the first half of 2020 10 criminal cases were sent to municipal and district courts, which clearly confirms a serious problem," said Vokhidov.

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