The Aral Sea fell victim to Soviet designs to irrigate huge swaths of desert and now offers only a poisoned catch.
At least 200 Muslims have been arrested in Uzbekistan for allegedly having the intention to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or being sympathetic to the armed group, a human rights group says.
The arrests started in early October in and around the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and take place almost daily amid massive checks and searches, the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Defenders said on Monday.
Most of the arrested men are migrant workers who returned home from Russia, Turkey or Western Europe and have nothing to do with ISIL, the group’s chairman, Surat Ikramov, told Al Jazeera.
“They find five real militants and arrest 50 innocent men who will be tortured and forced to confess,” he said. “Some of them are not even observant Muslims.”
About two million Uzbeks toil in Russia, mostly in menial jobs. Russian authorities claim that some of them are “radicalised” and recruited by ISIL amid an unfolding economic crisis in Russia and back home.
‘Artificially creating terrorists’
The new arrests in Uzbekistan have little to do with “wannabe ISIL fighters”, a Moscow-based writer says.
Uzbek authorities “artificially create ‘terrorists’ to report on the terrorist cells they allegedly identified”, Daniil Kislov, whose website is banned in Uzbekistan, told Al Jazeera. “They need to keep the machine going, to get more funding and new chevrons.”
Uzbek officials declined to comment on the arrests. Most foreign media outlets have been expelled from Uzbekistan.
In March, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group founded in the early 1990s, pledged allegiance to ISIL in a video that also showed a beheading of a captive Afghan soldier.
The group staged several attacks in Central Asia and relocated to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal zone in the late 1990s, where they colluded with the Taliban and fought against the US-led forces.
Hundreds of natives of Central Asia have joined ISIL in recent years, officials say.
Alarmed by the threat of attacks, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a former Communist bureaucrat, has for years been cracking down on Muslims who attend mosques unsanctioned by authorities.
Thousands of peaceful Muslims have been jailed in the ex-Soviet nation of 31 million people, where they are routinely tortured and abused, rights groups and survivors say.
The pressure on believers intensified after Uzbek troops mowed down hundreds of protesters, including women and children, in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan in 2005 in what became the bloodiest crackdown on a popular revolt in the former Soviet Union.