Interior officials: Banned religious party's activity abates in Uzbekistan

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - The activity of the banned Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir has decreased in recent months and is under control of Uzbek authorities, Interior Ministry officials said Monday.

The deputy head of the Interior Ministry's department for fighting terrorism, Ilya Pyagay, said the government's tough policy toward religious extremism had paid off and it was now even willing to drop cases against those who repent on their involvement with the Islamic opposition.

"Many of them have been deceived or got involved with Hizb-ut-Tahrir by chance," Pyagay said in an interview.

Uzbekistan's staunchly secular government has battled Islamic fundamentalists for several years. It has been strongly criticized by human rights groups and Western governments for widespread violations amid its crackdown on religious extremism.

The Central Asian nation's relations with the United States have dramatically improved since last fall, when it offered a military base for use by U.S. troops for anti-terrorist operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Human rights groups, however, have expressed worry that the new cooperation amounts to tacit approval of harsh Uzbek policies.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which means Party of Freedom, emerged in the Middle East in 1953. Its ideology is based on the idea of reviving the original purity of Islam and it aims to unite the Islamic world through the creation of an Islamic caliphate, or empire, ruled by Islamic law or Shariah.

It is a secretive organization based on small networks and does not advocate violence, preferring to work underground and win adherents through personal contacts and leaflets.

The party claims to have thousands of followers in overwhelmingly Muslim Central Asia and Azerbaijan, where it first appeared in the early 1990s — soon after the Soviet collapse in 1991.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir has denounced the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign.

Pyagay said despite the lull in Hizb-ut-Tahrir activity, the search for members continues. He said about 30 Hizb-ut-Tahrir members were arrested since the beginning of the year and 347 people are wanted by Uzbek police for various religious extremist activities. Many of these are hiding in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

He said these countries' laws on religious extremism were not as strict as Uzbekistan's — complicating the prosecution of anyone involved with radical religious groups there.

"Uzbekistan will seek extradition of any such Uzbek citizens detained abroad," he said, adding that Russia was expected to hand over several alleged Hizb-ut-Tahrir members later this year.

He also said Islamic radicals increasingly had been using female relatives of their convicted supporters to distribute leaflets or stage anti-government protests.

"We try not to prosecute women, but it is a concerted action by certain structures that want to use women, most of whom are illiterate, to promote their interests," Pyagay said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has recently expressed concern that Uzbek authorities had extended their crackdown on dissident Muslims to women. It said that more than 20 women had been arrested since the beginning of the year for alleged extremist activities.