Imam Obid Nazarov, considered one of the most powerful opponents of the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, was in a coma this week after being shot in the head Feb. 22 in the northern Sweden city of Stromsund.
A married Uzbek couple was arrested May 14 in connection with the shooting and an arrest warrant has been issued for an Eastern European man, now said to be residing abroad and who is believed by Swedish prosecutors to have carried out the shooting.
There is little doubt among some Uzbeks living in Stromsund that Nazarov's shooting was ordered by the Tashkent regime, the Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyra reported Tuesday.
"We would never have thought this could happen in Sweden, in Europe," an unidentified Uzbek man from Nazarov's congregation told TT, adding he was certain from the day it happened it was a political act.
"They have sent people before to kill those in opposition, for example in Russia, and now it has happened here as well," he said. "(Nazarov) is our imam and he is very important to us. Everyone listens to him."
TT quoted an Uzbek journalist living in Stockholm saying he, too, felt the shooting was an act of intimidation by the Karimov regime against the exile community.
Kudrat Babadjanov said he and Nazarov had been singled out by Tashkent as examples of exiled Uzbeks who were "portraying the country in a negative light."
The 54-year-old imam was granted asylum in Sweden in 2006 after he had been targeted by the Uzbek government as terrorist -- a charge he denied as a politically motivated attempt by Tashkent to suppress Islamic dissenters.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Nazarov was one of the most popular Central Asian imams in the early 1990s, fleeing Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan in 1998 after being targeted by Karimov's government as a religious extremist.
The United Nations determined he was a victim of political persecution deserving of protection and he has since become one of the leading supporters peaceful, democratic change in Uzbekistan, the broadcaster said.
In a 2006 interview with the RFE/RL, Nazarov said he didn't support the overthrow of the Karimov regime by force of arms but was seeking a country in which all religions were welcome and tolerated.
"We want a society where human rights are respected and freedom of religion is guaranteed," he said.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its annual report on Uzbekistan that Nazarov is one of three Uzbek imams prominent in the 1990s whose followers were labeled as extremists despite their defense of religious freedom and condemnation of violence.
Two of the leaders have disappeared in Uzbek prisons, the group said.
Nazarov was the target of kidnapping attempts while living in exile in Kazakhstan, while his son Khusnuddin disappeared in 2004 shortly after police questioning in Tashkent.
The cleric had requested protection from the Swedish police a few days before the attack, the commission said.