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Uzbekistan accuses Turkish firms of being Islamist fronts

TASHKENT — Agence France-Presse | 3/10/2011 12:00:00 AM |

Uzbekistan has ratcheted up the pressure on Turkish business interests in the Central Asian country with a series of raids and legal cases in the wake of claims that Turkish firms operating there are fronts for a banned Islamic movement. ‘Over 54 Turkish nationals have faced criminal charges’ in the past two years, an Uzbek documentary says

Uzbekistan has stepped up pressure against the private business interests of its one-time ally Turkey, with state media denouncing Turkish firms as acting as a front for religious extremists.

Long wary of the influence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim majority Central Asian state, secular authorities appear to be linking Turkish private business to the activities of the Nurcus, an Islamic group that is banned in the country.

Uzbek state television has repeatedly aired documentaries accusing Turkish companies of creating a shadow economy, using double accounting and propagating nationalistic and extremist ideology.

"Over the past two years 54 Turkish nationals have faced criminal charges, 50 ventures working with Turkish capital were closed down for breaching country's laws and causing damage to the economy," a special report by the main Uzbekistan channel said.

Over half a billion dollars worth of cash and goods were "confiscated by one Tashkent court decision alone," according to the documentary "Kurnamaklık" (The Ungrateful Ones).

The reports came just after Uzbek law enforcement officials raided the Turkuaz supermarket, one of the biggest in the capital Tashkent, in a so-called "mask show" operation involving balaclava-clad special security forces.

At the end of last year, the first and the oldest Turkish supermarket in Tashkent was closed down for breaking local laws.

At the same time, one of the most prestigious English-language schools in Uzbekistan – which operates with Turkish funding – declared the suspension of their educational services for "safety and security reasons."

In 1991 Turkey was the first foreign state to acknowledge the independence of Uzbekistan, whose majority population and official language are Turkic in origin.

Since then it has invested more than $1 billion in the Uzbek economy and around 700 Turkish firms operate in Uzbekistan. Trade turnover was around $1 billion in 2010.

The Turkish embassy in Tashkent could not be reached for comment.

The television documentary accused Turkish firms of disseminating Nurcu literature and establishing prayer rooms, which are illegal in Uzbekistan.

State television listed more than a dozen Turkish firms and said they were acting against the interests of the two countries that share common religious, cultural and linguistic ties.

The Nurcus are followers of the 20th-century Islamic thinker Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, an Ottoman-born religious scholar who placed a strong emphasis on the link between religion and science and believed that societies could be changed through education.

The group has already been banned in Russia and its members have faced persecution in some ex-Soviet republics.

Meanwhile Uzbekistan's second main TV channel Yoşlar (the Youth) denounced the activities of Turkish educational companies reportedly working to create secret cells for the Nurcus.

The documentary named a Turkish businessman, Mehmet Zeki, who funded "the sect’s activity in Uzbekistan" and said "he had recently received 16 years imprisonment."

The report showed a number of young Uzbeks sitting behind bars in Samarkand provincial court, saying they were "found guilty of belonging to banned extremist organizations and disseminating materials that pose a threat to public security and order."

According to the Ezgulik rights group, over 50 Uzbek men have been jailed for belonging to Nurcus over the past few years, including three journalists and five workers of the Yetti İklim newspaper and Irmok magazine, which were shut down in 2009.

Most of the jailed men had graduated from schools funded by private Turkish organizations that flourished in the country when Turkey enjoyed warm relations with Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s.

Relations later became strained and Uzbekistan shut down the Turkish schools and brought home hundreds of Uzbek students studying in Turkey.

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