Central Asian countries sentence more Islamists to prison for longer terms

Prisons becoming ‘universities’ of Islamic revolution

Staff Report

2009-12-31

BISHKEK - Central Asian governments don’t differentiate between moderate, non-violent Islamic religious movements and radical ones, deepening the divide between secular governments and the faithful, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).

And just as communist revolutionaries a century ago called prisons “universities of the revolution”, Central Asian radical Islamists might be using prisons to recruit and organise new followers.

“Central Asia: Islamists in Prison”, finds that “problems within jails in Central Asia have been known to seep outside the prison walls and the expansion of radical Islamist thought within prisons is likely to have serious consequences”. The ICG is an international non-governmental organization dedicated to preventing conflict. The report was published December 15.

The report notes that politicians in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are very aware that addressing social and economic conditions and fighting corruption are the best ways to defeat extremism.

But too often, faced with the risk of renewed Islamic insurgency, Central Asian governments target radical Islamists and send more of them to prison for longer periods of time.

Such tough steps “give the appearance of an effective policy, but probably advance the Islamist cause”, the report says. Many Islamists see the prisons as one arena of their political struggle, and a place to recruit new followers. Islamists who are sent to prison have also begun challenging the obshchak, the organisation created by criminal prisoners that has traditionally held power inside Central Asian prisons.

“Prison directors are often reduced to mere observers of the power struggle taking place within their own establishments”, the report concludes, and it says Islamists will soon wield more power in the prisons than criminal structures. That power is not limited by prison walls, as corruption and underpaid staff often run errands and do tasks for prisoners in the outside world.

With some access to both prisoners and prison officials in Kyrgyzstan, and prison officials in Kazakhstan, the study was able to get some sense of the penal systems in those countries. In Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan conditions are believed to be even worse, and the numbers of jailed Islamists much higher, but there is no access and little information available about life behind prison walls there.

In Uzbekistan — with a prison population estimated at 34,000 — an overwhelming majority of the 4,400 political prisoners are believed to be Islamists.

The report did not provide figures for other Central Asian countries. The report says the Islamists are using their time in prison as “just one dimension of a political strategy aimed at establishing an Islamic state across the whole region”.

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