The Truly Bizarre Case of the Uzbek Rights Activist Turned Terror Suspect

by Joshua Foust on 1/24/2012 · 14 comments

I wrote earlier today about the weird trumped up Uzbek Terror hype machine, and how it might have snagged a man for committing, essentially, a thought crime. Jamshid Mukhtarov is currently in custody on suspicion of providing material support to the Islamic Jihad Union.

We’ll set aside questions of whether the IJU exists anywhere outside of an Internet chat room. What’s interesting is the history of Mukhtarov himself. Registan.net contributor Sarah Kendzior is digging through a lot of Uzbek-language material on him, but from what she and I have dug up before, he used to be a fairly well known figure in the Uzbek human rights movement in Jizzakh, in the Ezgulik Human Rights Society. In 2005, Mukhtarov wrote for Ferghana.ru:

“Human rights activists and oppositionists giving the population of Dzhizak the alternative information on the tragic events in Andizhan this May are being suppressed and harassed,” Dzhamshid Mukhtarov of Human Rights Society Ezgulik told foreign journalists on December 22. According to the activist, 15 representatives of the human rights community were assailed and beaten and threatened with displacement in Dzhizak itself and its environs.

Mukhtarov himself barely avoided arrest on fabricated charges of being an Islamic fundamentalist in August 2005. He avoided detention only because Birlik leader Vasila Inoyatova phoned the then Interior Minister Zakir Almatov on his behalf. Mukhtarov’s activeness in the human rights movement rekindled his conflict with law enforcement agencies.

David Walter blogged about the incident for Registan.net:

Another very interesting nugget that comes out of these stories, though, is that in Dzhizak in particular (I don’t necessarliy recall seeing this in other regions) these human rights activists, when they are arrested, are rung up on charges of “islamic extremism” rather than the more sophisticated (but equally vague) financial charges that Tashkent authorities like to use. The Dzhizak authorities seem consistently more exhuberant about enforcing and maintaining the party line (along with an enthusiastic strain of America-bashing) and less concerned about being openly corrupt than their Tashkent peers.

So Mukhtarov has been caught up in a web of trumped-up charges of extremism before. But his story is more complicated than that. A leaked State Department cable (sigh, I’m so sorry) describes Mukhtarov as being at the center of a power struggle within Ezgulik. Vasila Inoyatova, the woman who had kept the Jizzakh authorities from arresting Mukhatarov in early 2005, later asked the Jizzakh authorities to dissolve that branch of Ezgulik in December of 2005 after the local director stopped filing reports and began speaking out against her. Mukhtarov took over control to the Jizzakh branch, but also didn’t file reports. He then left Uzbekistan for Russia to earn money for a few months.

By the time Mukhtarov came back, in October of 2005, he wanted to realign the Jizzakh Ezgulik branch from Birlik to the Free Farmer’s Party (a Ferghana.ru profile of him, from December of 2005, notes that Mukhtarov was also involved in trying to defend local farmers from having their land seized by corrupt local authorities). The Jizzakh branch of Ezgulik was dissolved soon afterward. The problem is that the Free Farmer’s Party wants to overthrow the regime, while Birlik, the party the Tashkent headquarters of Ezgulik associated itself with, favored more gradual evolution in governance.

So even back then, Mukhtarov had openly expressed solidarity with regime change in Tashkent — hardly a crime, but it did make him a target for the authorities. According to the Common Language Project, in 2006 Mukhtarov was caught distributing Human Rights Watch literature about the Andijon massacre and was placed under house arrest for trumped-up “sexual harassment” charges. He was quickly smuggled over the border to Kyrgyzstan.

I know that we can’t go home until President Karimov is ousted. I’m sure that if I were to return now I would be killed. It is hard to maintain hope that things will change and we will be able to return home — everyone is so afraid after what happened in Andijan.

While in Kyrgyzstan, however, Mukhtarov ran into some problems. JM Berger, who runs the Intelwire site and published Jihad Joe, a study about domestic radicalization in the U.S., sent along a grab from Lexis-Nexis. 24kg reported in 2006 that Mukhtarov, living in exile in Osh, complained thatKyrgyz special forces threatened to hand him over to the National Security Service of Uzbekistan if he didn’t leave the country. According to employees of the committee on migration and employment, 24kg reports, Muhtarov made fabricated reports and appeals to various international organizations complaining of persecution.

I can’t find out how he wound up in the U.S., though around that time many countries, including the U.S., were granting asylum to Uzbeks who fled the violence in Andijon. While Mukhtarov and his family were not direct victims of Andijon, they did have to flee the country in response to his activism about it. It’s possible he managed to get asylum that way.

Mukhtarov today, courtesy Radio Ozodlik

Something happened to Mukhtarov while he was in this country. Maybe. In this photo, taken in 2008, he appears a bit nebbish perhaps but certainly no radical. In the photo above, provided by Radio Ozodlik, Mukhtarov seems to have taken on the fashions of Islamist militarism. It’s a pretty shocking change for a man who argued to passionately, and at such great risk, for the rights and freedoms of his family and countrymen.

However, the only thing the U.S. federal authorities have revealed is that Mukhtarov is, apparently, guilty of sending some emails. They call that “material support” because it was to people believed to be associated with a Foreign Terrorist Organization. It’s awfully thin gruel for a terror investigation.

What is bizarre is what a dramatic change this is for Mukhtarov. Weirdly, his family was mentioned in the 2005 Uzbekistan country report published by the State Department, but that’s been taken offline (cache is here for the time being). He has a history of being hounded by the authorities for his outspoken views on rights, and for being falsely accused of Islamism by the government of Uzbekistan.

Are the current charges similarly trumped up? We just don’t know, and both Sarah Kendzior and I are looking into this a lot more (expect her to write when she’s finished digging through VOLUMES of Uzbek-language material). But for right now we’re just putting this out there to see if anyone else is able to come up with something.

This is a truly bizarre case, one of the weirdest I’ve seen. And it has a helluva lot more questions than answers.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 14 comments }

J.M. Berger January 24, 2012 at 6:11 pm

For what it’s worth, and my comment encompasses both this post and the earlier one, it’s very hard to make a case that this is being hyped or blown out of proportion — because no one except us wonks seems to be talking about it all that much.

The original story you commented on was from a local news outlet which naturally would cover something like this. There was no breathless John Ashcroft-style press conference to announce this arrest, and it looks poised to pop up and disappear from the wires in a relatively proportionate way (unless all the intrigue reported only here goes somewhere unexpected).

Uzbek terrorism may be hyped within the relatively small FP community that knows and cares about Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan, but it’s not exactly grabbing sensational headlines with the general public, nor is there a discernible wave of concern about Uzbek terrorists in the U.S. among policy makers.

It seems to me that these cases – this one included – are increasingly perfunctory arrests, which is appropriate for people who break the law. Regardless of what you think about the FTO designation, the IJU is an FTO and the complaint describes communications which are reasonably of concern to law enforcement. They might turn out to be nothing, but if the facts as stated in the affidavit are true, an arrest is not an unreasonable response if the legal case can be made.

There are certainly cases such as the Jose Pimentel arrest where the accompanying hype is far out of proportion to the magnitude of the arrest. This particular case seems to me to be more of a business-as-usual approach, which we should be happy to see more of.

Xenophon January 24, 2012 at 6:56 pm

“It seems to me that these cases – this one included – are increasingly perfunctory arrests, which is appropriate for people who break the law.”

Yes, thank goodness this sort of thing is becoming perfunctory. And I quite agree, the less “hype” the better. No need to worry the “Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan” masses with this sort of complex matter. It’s the sort of thing only the Inner Party can really grasp.

J.M. Berger January 24, 2012 at 7:22 pm

On the first point, it is counterproductive to treat the endless procession of losers and lunatics as grave threats requiring saturation coverage (much as that would help my book sales). It would be better not to have these guys at all, but if we have them, they should be prioritized proportionate to the threat they represent.

On the second point, I am not arguing for or against the importance of understanding Uzbek politics, militancy, or anything else. I’m just saying there’s not much of a case to be made that Uzebek terrorism is being “hyped” when almost no one is talking about it.

AJK January 25, 2012 at 6:33 pm

All points noted. But the slippery slide into calling “not being down with Karimov’s government” into “Muslim terrorist” is made much easier by arrests such as these. The more Karimov is portrayed as a bastion against terrorist groups (that oh yeah he invented), the harder it is for people to get traction against Karimov’s regime, the easier it is to dismiss those people in favor of some sort of broadly-described Solution for Afghanistan.

I care less about whether human rights advocates are going about their anti-Karimov in an effective way, which has been hashed out on here before. But for them to be arrested for being anti-Karimov isn’t the right solution.

Joshua Foust January 25, 2012 at 9:12 am

That’s a fair comment. I meant that, within security studies, the “Uzbek Threat” is often hyped, and that this really carries over into the government scene. That doesn’t mean this particular case was hyped, but it seems like part of it may have been.

Of course, this comes back to the larger points you and I have discussed about transparency of process (there is none) and the very unsettling system of designating groups FTOs and designating innocuous activity “material support.” Those are bigger issues than Mukhtarov’s really interesting past, but I don’t think they’re irrelevant either.

Ian January 24, 2012 at 6:41 pm

I know Josh knows this, so it’s a bit of a nitpick: beard and piety bruise are not necessarily indicative of Islamist militancy. Probably don’t help when you’re under a terrorism indictment though.

Dilshod January 24, 2012 at 11:42 pm

This is where the most interesting debate is when an expressly devout Salafist turns into real threat? Imho, the answer is in the doctrine. Their doctrine nurtures aggressive attitudes towards freedoms.

AJK January 25, 2012 at 6:37 pm

There are innumerable guys with a Salafi beard out there who are upset at Karimov and upset at the US and who discuss such upsetness online. I agree with Foust’s original point, that this smells a lot like a thought crime.

And yeah, I’m with Ian, I think it’s just not the best-conveyed paragraph rather than Foust being fearful of bearded folk.

Joshua Foust January 25, 2012 at 9:13 am

That’s fair. For all I know, the allegations against Mukhtarov might well be true. If so, he’s not the first person to have become radicalized in the U.S., or even after fleeing a tyrannical regime. And you and I both know how silly it can be to judge people by their appearances, but his rather dramatic change in a relatively short time really is remarkable.

Sarah Kendzior January 25, 2012 at 11:55 am

I did an interview for a news outlet on this story last night, and one of the questions the reporter asked me is whether the repression in Karimov’s Uzbekistan – which led to Mukhtarov being labeled an extremist and drove him into exile – made him so desperate for retribution that he would pursue an actual extremist group like the IJU. After looking through a lot of material on Mukhtarov, I don’t have a conclusive answer, but it’s a decent theory. It reminds me of the thesis put forth in Michael Andersen’s documentary ’(The Myth of) Religious Extremism in Central Asia’. That said, I don’t think Mukhtorov’s case is emblematic of a broader trend in Uzbekistan, but it is an interesting, and sad, story.

Dilshod January 25, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Based on my encounters with my former countrymen who immigrated to the US, I can say that they do not change much – hardworkers keep working even more, lazy dumbs wonder around begging, adventurists get even more adventurous. Moderate Muslims become less obsessed with practices and devout ones become more devout. Freedom helps better accentuate people’s nature. It cannot re-process you, unless you are young enough.

Guy Fawkes January 31, 2012 at 3:26 pm

“Freedom helps to accentuate but cannot reprocess you unless you are young enough”? This ageism and this statement f yours would be considered very offensive to those who have successfully assimilated into the American culture but are not “young enough” as you put it.

Dilshod January 27, 2012 at 12:29 am

Btw, just went through a piece by Mr Tolib Yakubov, a leader of Uzbek HR group who lives in France. He says amazing things about Mr. Mukhtarov – that he is likely to be a secret agent for the Uzbek intelligence, plus, that he received a refugee status on fake grounds (that he was not fleeing the gov’t persecution, but was escaping from families whose members were killed by a gang his sister was part of) and that he indeed told Mr Yakubov that “democracy is kufr”. Sarah, did you see this?

Sarah Kendzior January 28, 2012 at 7:52 am

Thanks Dilshod — I did see that. Similar accusations were made on Uzbek opposition websites a few years ago. At the time, others strongly refuted them, and still others made even harsher claims. The same thing is happening now. Accusations of NSS participation are pretty common in Uzbek political circles, and given the nature of the subject, they are especially difficult to prove. I’m interested in learning who Muxtarov was and why he joined the groups he did when he did, but after looking through a lot of material I only have more questions than answers.

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