Uzbekistan: praying for freedom
Islam Karimov’s government keeps tight control on the country’s religious communities, writes Felix Corley The police raid on Nazira Rahmanova’s home in Margilan, Uzbekistan, on the evening of 12 March followed the all-too-familiar pattern. The ‘anti-terror-cleaning’ raid — the official description for this type of repression — was carried out, as usual, by anti-terrorist police […]
06 Aug 08

Islam Karimov’s government keeps tight control on the country’s religious communities, writes Felix Corley

The police raid on Nazira Rahmanova’s home in Margilan, Uzbekistan, on the evening of 12 March followed the all-too-familiar pattern. The ‘anti-terror-cleaning’ raid — the official description for this type of repression — was carried out, as usual, by anti-terrorist police and ordinary police. Accompanying them was an official of the mahalla (neighbourhood) committee, which keeps a close eye on everything. Police searched the house and everyone in it for religious literature to confiscate, and also questioned everyone present. However, the police weren’t interested in minor ‘anti-terror’ problems like violence, terrorism or attempts to overthrow the state. They were much more interested in questioning this small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses about how they knew each other, when they had joined the religious group, who had introduced them to it, whether they spoke of their faith to others and whether they had visited the nearby Jehovah’s Witness place of worship (when it was still legally allowed to exist — it has since been closed down).

One of the victims of the raid, Abdubannob Ahmedov (a 31-year-old unmarried warehouse worker) received a four-year labour camp term on 23 July. Another, Sergei Ivanov (a 21-year-old unmarried carpenter in a kindergarten), received a three-and-a-half-year term of imprisonment. Three others got suspended terms of imprisonment. The home-owner, Nazira Rahmanova, a pensioner, was fined nearly a million Sums. This is about twice the annual state pension. The crime of the six: ‘illegal’ religious activity.

All non-state registered religious activity is a criminal offence, as is the sharing of beliefs and meetings for religious purposes in private homes. In the north-west of the country, all non-state-controlled Islamic and non-Russian Orthodox religious activity is illegal. Uzbekistan’s commitments to religious freedom and other fundamental human rights are ignored by the state. Religious communities are raided with impunity, their members threatened and assaulted, their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of expression routinely violated. Torture is ‘routine’, as the UN Committee Against Torture found in November 2007. Police and the National Security Service (NSS) secret police frequently use or threaten to use physical violence, including rape and the use of gas masks to cut off victims’ air supply. Such methods are used to try to force adults and children to renounce their beliefs or to make confessions implicating themselves or others. The numbers of those fined or imprisoned for religious activity continue to rise.

Officials have claimed that Uzbekistan is a Muslim country and, so they say, does not oppress Muslims. Islam is primarily controlled from inside state-run structures, through the complete control of the selection, education and nomination of imams. This is in defiance of the constitution, which proclaims the separation of religion from the state and the non-interference of the state in religious communities’ affairs. The state also controls the number and location of mosques, and the Islamic religious leadership is virtually an agency of state authority. State Islamic educational institutions check political loyalty to the president, and the NSS maintains informers among students. Non-state controlled religious education is forbidden. Official imams have complained that they cannot teach religion to children.

The state controls other religious communities – including independent Muslims – from outside their formal structures, for example through the police and NSS, or expulsion of university students (as happened with Protestants and Hare Krishna devotees).

Religious communities — whether Muslim or of other faiths — are not able to buy, build or open places of worship freely. Some places of worship have been confiscated. Secret police surveillance of religious believers and communities is widespread, with hidden microphones in places of worship, agents to monitor worship, and spies within communities. State officials are acutely interested in controlling all religious activity. An April 2007 internal document revealed direct orders to religious communities ‘to prevent missionary activity’, ‘to bring under constant close observation all officially registered religious organisations’ and ‘to strengthen the struggle with people conducting illegal religious education and organising small religious gatherings’.

Officials like to claim that religious tolerance flourishes in Uzbekistan. Yet state-run TV has repeatedly shown films – which school and university students are strongly encouraged to watch – inciting intolerance and hatred of religious minorities, especially those who are said to share their beliefs with others. Other state-run media outlets, such as newspapers and websites, similarly encourage religious intolerance and hatred. One Protestant publicly attacked in a state TV broadcast commented to Forum 18 that ‘the government is trying to stir up Muslims against Christians’.

When the harsh 1998 Religion Law was adopted, President Islam Karimov claimed it was necessary to counter ‘Wahhabi’ Muslims – a term widely and loosely used in Central Asia to denote anyone from peaceful devout Muslims to Islamist militants. Karimov stated in a speech broadcast nationwide that ‘such people must be shot in the forehead. If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself’ .Numerous articles in the Religion Law, Criminal Code and Administrative Code are used to punish peaceful religious activity. In 2006, fines for a wide range of religious activity – including unregistered religious activity – were increased tenfold, to between 50 and 100 times the minimum monthly wage.

Although members of religious minorities are often fined, they are not – unlike Muslims – frequently brought to trial and jailed. Of the five known religious minority prisoners, four are Jehovah’s Witnesses (including the two imprisoned after the Margilan raid). The other is Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, sentenced in 2007 to four years in a labour camp for ‘illegal’ religious activity. It seems the main reason for Pastor Shestakov’s punishment was that his church – which later disbanded, saying it was ‘too dangerous to meet’ – had been attracting ethnic Uzbek converts.

Reportedly, thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned, usually on accusations of belonging to terrorist, extremist or banned organisations. One observer asserted that within the past year police have arrested people as terrorists because an Arabic Koran was found in their house. The nature of the Uzbek justice system, in which the planting of evidence and torture by the authorities is often credibly claimed, makes it unlikely that the authorities – or anyone else – knows how many of these prisoners are guilty of violence or are only ‘guilty’ of being devout Muslims who take their faith seriously.

Prisoners are often denied their religious freedom. Muslim prisoners have complained to Forum 18 that they have been forbidden to pray or fast during Ramadan. Similarly, Pentecostal pastor Shestakov has been denied access to a Bible in prison.

Uzbekistan does have violent groups which oppose the state, even though their violence is infrequent. But the authorities’ own violence and injustice fuels support for such groups. When Forum 18 has asked Uzbeks who sympathise with extremist organisations why they do so, they often indicate that such sympathy is motivated by a dislike of the government’s actions.

Religious literature is under tight state control. The import and production of literature — including the Koran and the Bible — is strictly controlled, with compulsory prior censorship by the state religious affairs committee. Only registered communities can ask for permission to print or import material. Relatively little literature about the majority Islamic faith is allowed to be published, and none is imported officially. Among Islamic books no longer published is a collection of hadith which Sunni Muslims regard as the most authentic hadith compilation. Censorship of religious literature – both published in the country and imported – is mandated under the Religion Law. First-time ‘offenders’ are punished with fines and confiscation, but second-time offenders face up to three years in jail under the criminal code. Frequently, even legally imported materials are confiscated during police raids. Courts often order such material — including books such as the Bible — to be burned, as happened to literature confiscated from Baptists in Karshi in October 2006.

This is, sadly, just a snapshot of Uzbekistan’s hostility to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Other issues — such as restrictions on the numbers of Muslims allowed to make the Hajj pilgrimage, and controls on the individuals who are permitted to go — are also part of the state’s bleak record. Few religious believers expect the state to respect fundamental human rights. From the attitudes of state officials Forum 18 News Service has surveyed, that is one of the few expectations the state shares with its citizens. But, despite state repression, ordinary Uzbeks of all faiths continue to exercise their right to religious freedom. That determination to exercise a fundamental human right is a hopeful sign.

Felix Corley is editor of Forum 18 News Service, which covers religious freedom issues