When he was arrested again two years ago, Ravshan Gapirov was not surprised. A popular defense lawyer for Muslims charged with extremism, Gapirov had long angered authorities in Kyrgyzstan who see Islam as one of the greatest dangers to the country’s stability. He spent most of 2008 in prison, accused of supporting a banned pan-Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and collaborating with his extremist clients.
Gapirov, director of the Justice and Truth Human Rights Advocacy Center in the southern town of Osh, struggles against a confounding system: because of Central Asia’s strategic proximity to Afghanistan, the United States and Russia have supported dictatorships that, by banning even peaceful expressions of Islam, have pushed ordinary disaffected Muslims into the arms of radicals, some based in Afghanistan.
On April 7, after his security forces fired into a mob, leaving more than eighty dead, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev fled the capital, Bishkek. For the five years of his increasingly corrupt reign, he had attacked Islam as both a security and political threat. But he also hosted a US air base at the Manas airport outside Bishkek, established shortly after 9/11, and thus had an unflinching ally in his campaign, one that was willing to put aside its democratic ideals for a short-term strategic gain.
In Bakiyev’s sudden and unexpected absence, former opposition leaders from disparate parties announced an interim government and slowly took control. But many of those leaders are tainted with scandal, having previously served with Bakiyev before leaving to form their own personality-driven opposition parties. The acting chair, Roza Otunbayeva, is loved in the West for her grandmotherly demeanor and fluent English, but she is suspected at home of being ineffectual. Other interim ministers are split on where their allegiances lie: with Russia, the former colonial master and driver of Central Asian economies, angry over the presence of American troops in its "near abroad"; or the United States, which most Kyrgyz see as primarily interested in keeping its air base.
Washington was quiet as Bakiyev murdered opponents, shut down media outlets, rigged elections and drove even moderate Muslims, afraid they would be targeted as terrorists, to practice their religion in secret. In private conversations, US officials acknowledged Bakiyev’s appalling human rights record, but publicly they offered only tepid criticism and continued training his elite military units. Like other Central Asian despots, Bakiyev received lucrative American rewards for highlighting, or even exaggerating, the threat of terrorism.