Asia

Sweden imam attack: The Uzbek hitman and the unanswered questions

Image caption Supporters of dissident imam Obid-kori Nazarov have accused the Uzbek government of trying to kill him

A Swedish court has sentenced an Uzbek national to 18 years in prison for the attempted murder of a dissident cleric from Uzbekistan. The case of a gunman from one of Central Asia's most repressive states hunting down a government critic in a quiet Swedish town made headlines in the Scandinavian country for months.

And it raised a number of questions - were Uzbek security services behind the killing and why did Sweden fail to keep safe a man to whom it had given asylum? BBC Central Asia's Khayrullo Fayz reports.

On a cold February day in 2012, Obid-kori Nazarov was shot in the head outside his apartment in the remote northern town of Stromsund. A bullet fired from a revolver equipped with a silencer lodged in the imam's brain, causing serious and lasting damage. But Nazarov survived.

The prosecutor in the case, Krister Petersson, argued there was strong evidence that the convicted man, Yury Zhukovsky, acted on behalf of the Uzbek state.

But the court ruled that, while it was safe to say that Zhukovsky had acted on behalf of someone else, it could not say who ordered the killing.

Human rights groups regularly criticise Uzbekistan for being one of the world's most authoritarian states, where information and the media are strictly controlled, political opponents jailed and where torture is rife in prisons.

Image caption The apartment building where Nazarov was shot and badly wounded on 22 February 2012

Threats

Obid-kori Nazarov arrived in Sweden in 2006 where he was granted asylum.

He had gained prominence as a conservative, independent cleric in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, in the early 1990s.

His emotional sermons touched on social and economic problems and human rights.

They proved popular with a growing audience of thousands of followers, but President Islam Karimov's administration soon saw him as a threat to the secular regime.

In 1998 an arrest warrant on extremism was issued, forcing Mr Nazarov into hiding in neighbouring Kazakhstan until the UN High Commission for Refugees approved his refugee status eight years later.

After his arrival in Sweden, Mr Nazarov did not stop criticising the Uzbek authorities for repressing ordinary Muslims, published sermons online.

The government in turn continued to portray him as an enemy of the state, accusing him of planning bomb attacks in Uzbekistan and being a spiritual leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is listed by the US as a terrorist organisation.

Mr Nazarov denied such links. His fellow refugees in Sweden say that even in exile he received numerous threats.

Image copyright Private
Image caption Obid-kori Nazarov strongly denied accusations of radicalism

No refuge

Three and a half years after the attempt on Nazarov's life, the suspected hit man was extradited from Russia to Sweden.

But for the prosecution, the media and many observers, the case was as much about the man who pulled the trigger as it was about his home country of Uzbekistan.

Dr David Lewis, a Central Asia specialist from the University of Exeter, says that while there is no direct evidence of the Uzbek state being involved, there is a broader pattern.

"It certainly fits the pattern that we know about - which is, over several years, attempts by the Uzbek government to control the activities of dissidents and exiles and religious activists outside its borders through a whole series of activities by the security services including physical violence," he says.

The attack on Obid-kori Nazarov is indeed just one in a series of unexplained killings and assassination plots.

In September 2011 Uzbek businessman Fuad Rustamkhojaev was shot dead in the western Russian town of Ivanova where he lived in exile.

He was a co-founder of a new opposition alliance, the Popular Movement of Uzbekistan, which had held its first congress in Berlin only months before his death.

Observers believe he was targeted to set an example to other wealthy people with enough funds to finance opposition activities.

And a year ago another killing disturbed politically active Uzbeks abroad.

In December 2014 another Uzbek cleric, Abdullah Bukhari was shot in broad daylight in Istanbul.

CCTV footage distributed on the internet shows a man walking up to Bukhari and pressing a gun in the imam's back before fleeing.

And only last month, Uzbekistan's most prominent opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mohammad Solih told the BBC that police had arrested several men found observing his villa in Turkey.

Solih's house was previously targeted in a drive-by shooting in 2013.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Allegations of torture and forced confessions surrounded the trial of 15 Uzbek men following the Andijan massacre in 2005 when troops fired into a crowd, killing hundreds

Terror tactics

But while most such attacks remain unresolved, other methods of Uzbekistan's security services are well documented by human rights groups and independent observers.

Uzbeks abroad are often put under pressure by threatening their relatives back home. And some exiles are put on Interpol most wanted lists to restrict their movement abroad.

Observers say that the security services have recruited a sizeable number of informants in the larger communities of Uzbeks abroad to help them.

But proving state involvement in political murder is almost impossible, according to Exeter university's Dr Lewis:

"What we can see from this case (in Sweden) is probably that Uzbekistan is not using its own state employees to carry out assassinations," he says.

"The most likely scenario is that these are individuals that are one or two (levels) removed from the government, and possibly involving individuals who are involved with organised crime. Certainly most of these things are happening at arms length from the Uzbek authorities which gives them deniability in case that any of the perpetrators is actually caught."

The Stromsund murder plot is a rare case of a would-be assassin brought to justice.

But for Uzbek dissidents abroad it will be of little consolation. If the aim was to not just kill a vocal critic but to intimidate all others, the people behind the perpetrator may well have achieved their aim.

And for Nazarov and his family, the impact of the attack almost four years ago remains undiminished.

The imam's son, Dovudkhon Nazarov, told the BBC that the family still feels threatened and that his father's injury is so extensive he is still receiving treatment.

Additional research by Johannes Dell

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