But the authorities are still a long way from adopting the heavily repressive tactics favoured in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
On April 6, 27-year-old Rahmatullah Abdullaev went on trial in the southern city of Shymkent. He was arrested last year when police said they discovered an underground printing press used for Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets in his rented apartment.
This is the third trial involving suspected members of the group since the beginning of the year. The charges range from attempting to overthrow the government to inciting religious animosity and involvement with an illegal organisation.
On March 29, Gani Baisalbaev, 33, was sentenced to four years in prison for membership of the organisation, a charge he did not dispute. He was arrested in December after he approaching a television station and asking to speak to journalists. When he identified himself as a “mushrif” – a leader of one of Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s cells – station staff contacted the police and he was detained.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir started out as a Middle Eastern group and took off in Central Asia only in the mid-Nineties. Its fundamentalist agenda envisages replacing the region’s current governments with a “caliphate”, a joint Islamic state..
The group’s first cells were in Uzbekistan, later spreading to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and southern Kazakstan. At first its members in those countries tended to be ethnic Uzbeks, but recent arrests have uncovered Tajik, Kazak and Kyrgyz members.
Concerns are now rising that the organisation is growing beyond its traditional base in Kazakstan – socially disadvantaged people living in rural areas in the south of the country – into the larger towns and cities.
Residents of Shymkent have reported finding leaflets and other literature in their mailboxes. According to Kazak interior ministry officials, Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists have been identified in the far west, in the Atyrau and Mangystau regions.
Security service officers also acknowledge that over the last year, Hizb-ut-Tahrir missionaries have started targeting teachers, businessmen and even police.
In spite of the worries over the group’s growing influence, the Kazak authorities have not followed their Uzbek neighbours’ example – there have been less than a dozen arrests in the past three years, compared with thousands detained in Uzbekistan since 1996, and the sentences passed to date have been far lower than the 10-year or more routinely handed down by Tashkent courts.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir has not been put on Kazakstan’s list of terrorist organisation as it has been in Uzbekistan, but amendments to a 1998 religious law make it illegal to distribute printed materials supporting “religious extremism” or to proselytise without official permission.
Analysts and human rights activists agree that the radical group cannot be held in check by repressive means alone, and that a heavy-handed approach could even prove counterproductive.
Dosym Satpaev, director of the Risk Assessment Group in Almaty, told IWPR, “Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s ideas are extremist, but it is not a terrorist group, and they are not known for using violence.
“Repression will merely give members a opportunity to become martyrs, which will in turn attract people into their ranks.”
Adil Kojikhov from the Kazak Institute for Strategic Studies said, “It is too early to say that Kazakstan is going down the Uzbek route [of harsh repressions] – but relying on such methods will not solve the problem.”
For now, it seems the authorities are losing the ideological battle, despite their efforts to involve traditional Islamic leaders and youth groups to quell Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s influence.
Local analysts believe that the teaching of the party appeals to many disillusioned young people who feel they have been left on the periphery of a society that is still undergoing post-communist transition.
According to political analyst Igor Savin, Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s ideas can appear to offer easy solutions to young people’s problems.
“Its ideology allows one to read the books of [party founder] Taqiuddin an-Nabhani and come to believe that one can go on to transform the world,” he said.
Tanibergen Jakipov told IWPR how his son Nurjan was “transformed” into another person after he became involved with the group.
“When I celebrated my 50th birthday he refused to come into the room where all our relatives and friends had gathered for the party,” said Jakipov. “Nurjan told us, ‘There is alcohol there. I mustn’t go in.’”
Worried, the family approached the security services for help, only for their son to be placed under surveillance and picked up when he tried to hand out leaflets at a city bus station.
Nurjan was arrested in November 2003 and subsequently sentenced to three years imprisonment
His father feels badly let down by the authorities, and feels more could have been done to steer Nurjan away from Hizb-ut-Tahrir. “I went to them for help, and instead I only helped them put my son in jail,” he said bitterly.
Daur Dosybaev is editor in chief of the “Rabat” newspaper in Shymkent.
© 2004 IWPR – This article was first published on 14 April 2004 (RCA No. 276) by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), London. Posted on Religioscope with permission. Articles published by the IWPR on Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Iraq as well as other topics can be accessed on its website: www.iwpr.net