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Bleak record on religious freedom continues

Uzbekistan continues to be plagued by an abysmal rights record with regard to religious freedom, despite longstanding international pressure to improve it.

“The Uzbek authorities seek to restrict and control all religious activity of the country. They control the Muslim community from the inside, while all other faiths are controlled from the outside,” Felix Corley, the Editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and eastern Europe, said on Monday from London.

Faiths that the government did not like – which included unapproved Muslims, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other smaller communities – faced severe restrictions and many of their activities, including holding worship services, conducting religious education, spreading their faith and publishing religious literature were deemed illegal, the leading activist explained.

“Worship services are regularly raided and religious believers are sometimes beaten, interrogated, threatened and detained or imprisoned,” Corley charged, adding that religious literature sent into the country from abroad was routinely returned to sender, or confiscated.

Echoing that view, local rights activist and head of the Initiative Group of Independent Rights Activists of Uzbekistan (IGIRAU), Surat Ikramov, said that there had been a marked increase in the number of people being imprisoned for their religious beliefs over the past six months. “They are accused of involvement with the [banned] Hizbu-t Tahrir [party] and Wahabbi movement [those practicing Islam outside state-approved structures], as well as other movements under the pretext of religious extremism,” he said.

“Their cases are fabricated. It is a well-known fact because the charges brought against them could never be proved in court,” he said, referring to the group of detainees largely under the age of 30.

Their comments come less than a week after the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made public its conclusions that Central Asia’s most populous state be designated a country of particular concern (CPC) in its recommendations to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) requires that Washington designate as CPCs those countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief.

According to the USCIRF report, the overall situation with regard to human rights had deteriorated since 13 May 2005, when government troops opened fire on hundreds of demonstrators protesting against the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

In addition to a restrictive law on religion that severely limited the ability of religious communities to function in the country, Tashkent continued to exercise a high degree of control over the manner in which the Islamic faith was practiced, while government authorities continued to crack down harshly on Muslim individuals, groups and mosques that failed to conform to government-prescribed practices or that the government claims were associated with extremist political groups, the report said.

Citing the imprisonment of thousands of persons in recent years, most of whom are denied the right to due process, there were credible reports that many of those arrested continue to be tortured or beaten in detention, it added.

“Though security threats do exist in Uzbekistan, including from members of Hizbu-t Tahrir and other groups that claim a religious linkage, these threats do not excuse or justify the scope and harshness of the government’s ill treatment of religious believers. The commission’s CPC recommendation for Uzbekistan should not in any way be construed as an exculpatory defence of Hizbu-t Tahrir, an extremist and highly intolerant organisation that promotes hatred of moderate Muslims, the West, Jews and others,” the report said.

Such charges against the government are nothing new and Tashkent was quick to deny them as groundless. “Unfounded accusations that believers are being repressed in Uzbekistan gives us grounds for supposing that the US is applying double standards in its political demarches,” a government statement on Friday read.

Citing the fact that there were over 2,000 religious organisations and 16 religions officially registered in the country, it added: “All these and other figures show that the American commission’s conclusions are far-fetched and willful”.

Following the 2005 USCIRF report, US Secretary of State Rice designated as CPCs the following countries: North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam and Myanmar (formally Burma). This year’s report recommended those eight countries remain on the list, and that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan be added.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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