ISFARA, Tajikistan (BP)–Despite intense media speculation, mystery surrounds a group of men arrested in April in northern Tajikistan and charged with various crimes, including the murder of local Baptist pastor and missionary Sergei Besarab last January.
Several local politicians told Forum 18 News Service that most of those being held for Besarab’s murder and on other charges are devout Muslims. Media reports -– Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Russian RIA Novosti news agency among them -– described the men as members of a previously unknown underground Islamic terrorist movement, “Bayat” (an Arabic word meaning oath).
But others have voiced doubt, saying the suspects are simple criminals. One Baptist told Forum 18 that Besarab’s killing was a deliberate attack on the local Christian minority in the northern Tajik town of Isfara, located in one of the most devoutly Muslim regions of the former Soviet republic. Interior Ministry investigators in Isfara have refused to discuss the case with Forum 18 before their investigation is completed.
Besarab was shot dead during the evening of Jan. 12 after unknown intruders armed with automatic weapons burst into the yard of the Baptist church in Isfara. Besarab’s active missionary work -– which included distributing Tajik-language Christian leaflets to residents — had aroused some anger; only a week before he was killed, the local newspaper Nasimi Isfara published an anonymous article sharply criticizing his missionary work and pointing out that he had four criminal convictions (which, Baptist leaders say, preceded Besarab’s conversion to Christianity).
On April 12, Tajik secret police arrested 20 people on suspicion of committing criminal offenses to incite racial and religious tension, including Besarab’s murder and arson attacks on several mosques whose imams were believed by the attackers to demonstrate excessive loyalty to the Tajik government. According to a statement from Tajik officials, the detainees put up armed resistance and weapons were seized when their homes were searched. Tajikistan’s secret police admitted they had no prior knowledge of a Bayat movement.
Some sources claim that Bayat members have nothing to do with two other Muslim groups better known in the region, the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir party and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, nor is Bayat affiliated with the only legally active Islamic organization in Tajikistan — the Islamic Revival Party. Others claim Bayat members were among the local people who fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, some of whom are now held at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. These sources maintain there may be a link between Bayat and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose members have been very active in the neighboring Fergana valley and also fought for the Taliban.
“The Tajiks got on with Sergei Besarab very well and we didn’t have any problems with Muslims,” a member of the local Baptist community, Svetlana Drygina, told Forum 18 May 24 in Isfara. All the neighbors, she noted, had attended Besarab’s funeral. At the same time, Drygina said she is convinced Besarab’s murder was directed against the local Christian community. “Sergei often drove out of town, traveling to unpopulated areas where it would have been much easier to kill him. But someone wanted Sergei to be killed right in the church.”
Naim Sameyev, a government official in the Sogd region of northern Tajikistan and a member of the Islamic Revival Party’s ruling body, noted that of the six people under arrest suspected of murdering Besarab “unfortunately all of them are respected and very devout people.” He told Forum 18 on May 22 in the village of Chorku, 10 miles south of Isfara, that one of those being held, Hodi Hatayev, is an imam in the village. Sameyev also admitted that another of those arrested is a member of his party. “I don’t know anything about the other detainees, but I can say with assurance that the member of our party is innocent.” Most of the men being held for involvement in Besarab’s murder hail from Chorku, where 93 percent of the voters supported the Islamic Revival Party in the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Abdusator Boboyev, the head of the Islamic Revival Party in the Isfara district, confirmed that most of those arrested on suspicion of Besarab’s murder are devout Muslims. He added that the man suspected of being the actual murderer, Saidullo Madyerov, is the son of the former imam of Isfara’s central mosque and one of the town’s most knowledgeable theologians. “Thus far it is hard for me to draw any conclusions,” he told Forum 18 on May 23 in Isfara. “I can only say that genuine Muslims condemn terrorism.”
Both Boboyev and Sameyev were adamant that they had never heard of the Bayat movement and suspected that it had “simply been dreamt up by journalists.”
Isfara’s mayor, Muzasharif Islamuddinov, said he did not understand where journalists got their information about the existence of an underground terrorist Bayat organization in Isfara. “As far as I know, those suspected of killing Besarab have committed crimes before, and all of them are just criminals,” he told Forum 18 in the town May 24.
Islamuddinov questioned the genuineness of Besarab’s faith, pointing to his four prison terms. “One may well ask why he had decided to engage in missionary work here in Isfara, where there are virtually no Russians.” The major alleged that Besarab might have been attracted by Isfara’s location, equidistant from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. “This is a very convenient staging post for drug trafficking,” he told Forum 18. “Besarab used to deal in drugs before he became a pastor. Isn’t it logical to assume he had simply become a rival to some criminal drug barons?”
The leadership of Tajikistan’s Baptist Union denies the allegation, pointing out that although Besarab was a criminal he underwent a spiritual rebirth in jail. “We conduct services in prisons and indeed it was there that we met Besarab,” Rashid Shamsizade, a Baptist pastor from the capital Dushanbe, told Forum 18 in January. “After he got to know the Bible, he became a completely different person — he was indeed born again.” After release from prison, Shamsizade said, Besarab had become an active church member and was soon sent to Isfara as a missionary.
Radio Liberty’s Tajik-language service, which was among the first to mention the Bayat organization, has stood by its story. “We received information that the Baptist pastor had been murdered by members of the extremist Bayat organization from a reliable source …,” Salim Ayubzod, senior broadcaster at the Tajik service, told Forum 18 on May 25 from Prague. “But clearly, the authorities felt it necessary not to announce this information, at least until the investigation was complete.”
Igor Rotar is the Central Asia correspondent for Forum 18 News Service based in Oslo, Norway, and on the Web at www.forum18.org.