• April 24, 2010

Central Asia

Central Asia

| Bild: Prison bars (photo: AP)
Bild vergr?ssern Inside of Central Asia’s prison lurks great danger, writes Robert Templer – for the inmates, but also for the outside world, far beyond the borders of Central Asia
This year, Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet country to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). One of the OSCE’s primary goals is the protection and advancement of human rights. But there is little to suggest that Kazakhstan will utilise its tenure to address human rights abuses on its own territory, let alone those of the Central Asian region as a whole.

The prisons of Central Asia, for example, are horrific places. There may not be that many of them, but their number is growing. Inside them lurks great danger, also with political ramifications, for the inmates, but also for the outside world, far beyond the borders of Central Asia.

Recruiting grounds for Islamists

The prisons are places were radical, well-organised Islamist missionaries come into contact with young, already violent, recruits. Most of them have been detained for religious extremism. Once behind bars, they consolidate their position within this informal power structure and can exert their influence on inmates. In this way, prisons are becoming important recruiting grounds for Islamists, and have already become a training arena of sorts.

| Bild: photo: RIA Novosti
Bild vergr?ssern Kazakhstan’s parliament building in Astana: The governments of this region need to work urgently on improving the living conditions of their populations, writes Robert Templer
Radical Islamists shrewdly exploit the weaknesses of the prison system, which is undermined by corruption, a lack of personnel and inadequate governmental support.

The systematic detention of particular activists is therefore an opportunity for them to expand their own influence – initially within the prison, and later outside of it. After their release, the Islamists take the ex-convicts under their wing, mapping out their future for them. The state, on the other hand, leaves them to their fate.

Paradox politics

But of all places, it is these prisons and their inmates that are of paramount political significance in the battle against militant Islamism. The paradox of the situation is that, political leaders in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are intensely aware that the best way to defeat extremism is to address woeful social and economic conditions and fight the systemic top-to-bottom corruption.

| Bild: photo: RIA Novosti
Bild vergr?ssern Kanat Saudabajew, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs: despite the 2010 OSCE chairmanship the country is not utilising its tenure to address human rights abuses on its own territory
Instead they opt for a hard line policy and detain anyone taking part in Islamist activities. 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 are likely to advance the Islamist cause. Ever longer sentences handed down to Islamic activists for relatively minor actions like political demonstrations risk polarizing the Muslim community still further.

Risk of an armed Islamic uprising

Security authorities also fail in their differentiation between peaceful religious movements and those who openly call for armed battle. This deepens the rift between the observant Muslim population and their governments in Central Asian countries; a dangerous development in an era when the risk of an armed Islamic uprising is increasing by the day.

| Bild: photo: Edda Schlager
Bild vergr?ssern Newly built mosque in Shetpe, west Kazakhstan: the governments of this region need to launch a real dialogue with observant Muslims, Templer says
The growing numbers of Islamists in prison mean that more inmates, often with a record of violence, are drawn into the Islamist ideological orbit. Prisons need funding, advice, assistance and close attention – from foreign governments, concerned NGOs and international organizations. Currently, Central Asian jails lack all these things, mostly because regional governments are blocking access.

Dialogue with practising Muslims

The Central Asian campaign against political Islam will not halt the radicals. On the contrary, it will result in more recruits for the combat units. The manner in which the problem is being tackled could determine whether the revolt turns out to be a harmless, or a more dangerous one.

The governments of this region need to work urgently on improving the living conditions of their populations, crack down on corruption and abuse of office, and launch a real dialogue with observant Muslims. At the moment the region’s leaders are only talking about the first two options and rejecting the third. In doing so, they are undermining their own position and their countries’ futures.