Background on the Campaign of Religious Persecution
The period 1992 to 1997, when the Uzbek government sought to establish strict state control over religious activity, was punctuated by sporadic arrests and "disappearances" of prominent independent Muslim leaders. The murders of several police officers and government officials in December 1997 in the province of Namangan provided the pretext for the Karimov government to crackdown more heavily on independent Islam, portraying it as a threat to the country's stability. Authorities closed independent mosques, and began arresting Muslim believers for having attended religious services of imams who had run afoul of the government or for manifesting their faith by wearing beards. Hundreds arrested during this period remain in prison today.
The crackdown developed into a systematic, widescale campaign that intensified following the first significant incident of political violence in Uzbekistan-a series of bombings near government buildings in Tashkent in February 1999 that killed sixteen people and wounded more than one hundred. Police undertook mass sweeps of entire neighborhoods throughout the country, and the government expanded the targets of the repression to include relatives of suspected independent Muslims. Increasing numbers of men were sent to Jaslyk prison in Karakalpakstan, a place infamous for its harsh treatment of prisoners. In 1999 and 2000, Uzbek militants based abroad-known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan- launched armed incursions into Uzbekistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. In 2000, the Karimov government used the fighting as another pretext to justify the continued arrests.
The government enacted laws restricting and forbidding certain peaceful religious practices and activities, in contravention of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uzbekistan is a party.5 Article 18 of the Covenant provides that:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.... This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.6
A May 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, together with amendments to Uzbekistan's criminal and administrative codes, bans all religious activity and organizations not registered with the state, including private religious education7 and the distribution of literature deemed "extremist,"8 and sets out criminal penalties for leaders who fail to register their groups.9 The 1998 law also forbids proselytizing and religious dress in public for non-clerics.10 In addition, under subsequent amendments to the criminal code, any manifestation of belief or exchange of information deemed by the state to have "religious extremist" content was subject to harsh penalties. Though police frequently plant evidence to facilitate prosecution on drugs or weapons charges-and invoke articles of the criminal code including attempts to overthrow the state11-these clumsy tactics cannot conceal the religious basis of the persecution.
The government's campaign targets those perceived by the authorities to be adherents of "Wahhabism," a term suggesting a radical form of Islamic belief.12 The government has misapplied this term to refer to religious observance that takes place outside strict state controls. Thus, the label is applied to those who engage in private prayer alone or with others or engage in the private study of religion, i.e. study beyond state oversight. The state also brands as "Wahhabi" any person suspected of following or having been associated with Muslim leaders who have displayed independence from or been critical of the government, specifically those who have favored the establishment of an Islamic state in the territory of Uzbekistan or the incorporation of Shari'a as the law of the land. Those who proselytize for strict observance of Muslim prayer or who learn Arabic to study the Koran in the original are labeled "Wahhabis," as are men who grow beards as a mark of piety and women who wear certain kinds of headscarves.
Aside from "Wahhabism" and its supposed leaders, the government targets specific Islamic organizations, primarily the unregistered group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which it has defined as an "illegal religious organization." The group espouses the creation of a Caliphate, or Islamic state, through peaceful means. Memorial, the Russian human rights group, has estimated that more than half of the 1,042 religiously and politically motivated arrests that had been documented for the period January 1999 through April 2000 involved people accused of Hizb ut-Tahrir membership.13 In nearly all of the hundreds of Hizb ut-Tahrir cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch, as in the vast majority of the thousands of cases of people caught up in the crackdown, the state did not accuse Hizb ut-Tahrir members of involvement in any violent act, much less prove that they were involved in violence, and further failed to show that belief in an Islamic form of government was tantamount to action to overthrow the Karimov administration.
5 Uzbekistan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1995.
6 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 18, paragraphs 1 and 2.
7 Article 9, Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (hereinafter, "religion law").
8 Ibid, article 19.
9 Ibid, article 11.
10 Ibid, articles 5 and 14, respectively.
11 Article 159 of the criminal code.
12 In Central Asia, the term "Wahhabism" refers to "Islamic fundamentalism" and extremism. Discrepancy exists among the definitions of "Wahhabism," however. Historically, "Wahhabism" is a branch of Sunnism practiced in Saudi Arabia and named after its founder, Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab. The eighteenth-century movement known as "Wahhabism" advocated a conservative agenda of purifying the Muslim faith and simultaneously encouraged independent thinking, a potentially liberal stance.
The term is used in Central Asia to suggest radicalism and militancy. It is often used pejoratively. The Central Asian conception of "Wahhabism" retains a linkage to "foreignness" in general, including to Saudi Arabia.
13 Human Rights Center "Memorial" and the Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia, List of Individuals Arrested and Convicted on Political and Religious Grounds in Uzbekistan (January 1999-April 2000), Moscow, May 2000.