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Press Backgrounder: Human Rights Abuse in Uzbekistan
September 26, 2001


In his national address on September 20, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush linked the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to Osama bin Laden, suggesting the IMU may be a target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In 2000, the U.S. government included the IMU on its list of terrorist organizations.

Related Material

Memorandum to the U.S. Government Regarding Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan
HRW Memorandum, August 10, 2001

Muslim Persecution: U.S. Should Spotlight Uzbek Religious Repression
HRW Press Release, August 20, 2001

U.S. Policy in Central Asia
Memorandum to the U.S. Government, May 2001

The IMU is an armed group based primarily in Afghanistan that seeks the establishment of Shari'a (Islamic law) in Uzbekistan and the release of Muslim prisoners. It conducted a cross-border incursion from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan in 1999, and in 2000 conducted incursions from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The government of Uzbekistan has targeted the IMU as part of its own counterterrorism efforts. But since late 1997 the Uzbek government has used the terrorism issue to justify a far broader crackdown on peaceful "independent" Muslims-persons who practice Islam beyond oppressive state restrictions. They pray at home, study the Koran in small groups, belong to Islamic organizations not registered with or approved of by the state, and disseminate literature not sanctioned by the state. Having branded them "extremists," the government has sentenced thousands of independent Muslims to long prison terms without connecting them to the IMU or to any acts recognized as crimes under international law.

The campaign against independent Muslims intensified after February 16, 1999, when a series of bombs exploded near government buildings in Tashkent, the capital, killing sixteen people. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Human Rights in Uzbekistan
The Republic of Uzbekistan, the most populous country of Central Asia, with the largest standing army in the immediate region, gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The government of President Islam Karimov, who came to power in the Soviet period, employs many of the repressive methods of political and social control it inherited from that era.

In the early 1990s, the government decimated Uzbekistan's secular political opposition, arresting and harassing its leaders and prominent members and forcing others into exile. The Uzbek government will not officially register any political parties other than those aligned with the president, and organized political opposition is not tolerated. The state exercises tight control over the media, including through pre-publication censorship. There are no independent news outlets. Journalists critical of the government are routinely threatened by state authorities and have been driven out of the country under threat of arrest. There is no freedom of assembly; police violently disband any attempts at public demonstrations, and arrest the participants. In the past two years, the government has hounded human rights activists who have attempted to expose abuses, subjecting them to threats, beatings, and prison terms. In July 2001 one rights activist died in custody as a result of torture.

Torture is systematic in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch has documented how police and agents from the National Security Service (the successor to the Uzbek KGB) hang criminal suspects and political detainees by their feet or wrists, beat them with batons or bottles filled with water, apply electroshock to their bodies, and rape or threaten to rape them. Police torture has resulted in at least fifteen deaths in custody in the past two years alone. The torture often takes place while detainees are held in isolated basement cells for months on end, without access to legal counsel or family. Police frequently torture detainees, or threaten to harm their family members, to coerce self-incriminating statements from detainees or simply to punish them for their suspected activities, particularly in cases of torture of religious Muslim detainees.

Repression of Independent Muslims
Local human rights activists estimate that 7,000 independent Muslims are currently serving terms in Uzbekistan's prisons. Those arrested are typically accused of having religious affiliations-or of having participated in activities-that are tantamount to "anti-state activity" or "attempted subversion of the constitutional order." The state offers no material evidence of subversion, and the grounds for conviction is routinely a defendant's own self-incriminating statement, coerced under torture in police detention and then regularly recanted by the defendant in the courtroom. Those convicted usually receive sentences of fifteen to twenty years of imprisonment.

The campaign against independent Muslims involves all levels of government, down to the community level. Local officials throughout the country closely monitor the religious practices and affiliations of community members.

In a throwback to the darkest days of the Soviet Union, local authorities regularly organize public "hate rallies" to mobilize community pressure against and to intimidate detainees' families. Local government and law-enforcement officials, together with religious leaders from the government-run religious board, gather hundreds of residents and then forcibly bring in the family member, usually the wife or mother of a man accused of "anti-state activity" or "religious extremism." Speakers at the rallies will denounce those targeted as "enemies of the people," demand that they ask for the forgiveness of the president and the people, and call for their arrest or execution.

The Uzbek government has targeted Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamic group that supports the reestablishment of the Caliphate, or Islamic state, by peaceful means. Activities of the group include study of the Koran and privately published Hizb ut-Tahrir texts; group prayer; and dissemination of Hizb ut-Tahrir materials that address religious themes and commentary on the political situation, particularly the arrest of Muslims, in Uzbekistan. Any of these activities, from membership in the group to possession of one of its pamphlets is deemed grounds for arrest and is punishable by up to twenty years in prison. Some estimate that at least 4,000 people affiliated with or accused of being affiliated with the group are currently in prison in Uzbekistan.

Religious prisoners in Uzbekistan also include independent imams and their followers. The imams had been appointed by Uzbekistan's government-run religious board, but later ran afoul of the authorities for preaching without deference to the religious board, for refusing to praise the Karimov government in their sermons, refusing to serve as government informants, and the like. Several have been "disappeared"; others were thrown in jail on accusations that their sermons and lessons on Islam and the Koran were really "calls for jihad." One local activist estimated that thousands of students of these imams and people who attended their prayer services are also in prison.

Independent religious leaders, their followers, and anyone, particularly youth, who overtly displays his or her piety, e.g. by sporting a beard or wearing certain kinds of headscarves, is viewed by the state as suspicious and may be labeled a "Wahhabi." In the Uzbek context, the term is used pejoratively to connote "fundamentalism" or "extremism." Few of these people in fact adhere to Wahhabism, a branch of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.

Increasingly, police arrest relatives of independent Muslims, including suspected members of unregistered Islamic groups. President Karimov declared in April 1999 that fathers would be punished for the supposed wrongs of their sons. Brothers too are often arrested together and even tortured in each other's presence, again, both as a form of coercion, but also as punishment. Women are not exempt from the relentless state campaign. Female relatives of independent Muslim men are subjected to "hate rallies," detained and interrogated by police, and sometimes themselves are arrested. One woman, Rahima Akhmedalieva, was unlawfully taken into police custody in March 2001, held hostage by police who insisted the would not release her until her husband, an imam, returns to Uzbekistan where he is wanted on charges of "anti-state activities." She was later sentenced to seven years of imprisonment on charges of undermining the constitutional order.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
The IMU reportedly has headquarters in Afghanistan and may have training camps in Tajikistan or Afghanistan. The IMU is led by its field commander, Jumaboi Khojiev (now known as Namangani), an ethnic Uzbek who fled Uzbekistan in the early 1990s and joined the United Tajik Opposition to fight in the civil war in Tajikistan. He established his own camps and fighters, who became the militants of the IMU. The spokesperson or political leader of the IMU is Tohir Yuldashev, also from Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s Yuldashev led an opposition movement with an Islamic platform, which included a call for the establishment of Shari'a. He later fled the country under threat of arrest.

The government of Uzbekistan has alleged that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden give the IMU financial support.

The Uzbek government held IMU leaders, among others, responsible for the February 1999 bombings. In March 2000 they were tried in absentia, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Nearly a year earlier, Uzbek courts had convicted more than 100 people for the bombings; eighteen were sentenced to death and executed. The state attempted to link those accused to Namangani and Yuldashev. No material evidence was brought forward.

In August 1999, armed men believed to be associated with the IMU invaded Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan and took hostage a group of Japanese geologists and several members of the Kyrgyz military. The hostage-takers demanded that the government of Uzbekistan allow them safe passage home, release what they claimed were 50,000 religious Muslim prisoners, and allow the observance of Shari'a. Uzbekistan did not comply. The hostages were subsequently released, reportedly in return for a large ransom, and the insurgents were eventually repelled. The government of Uzbekistan responded to the incident by bombing Kyrgyz territory where it believed IMU members to be hiding. Several Kyrgyz civilians were killed and hundreds were wounded.

In August 2000, IMU insurgents gained access to border areas in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and engaged in heavy and protracted battles with the military forces of both states. Several foreign nationals hiking in the battle zone were taken hostage by the IMU forces, but escaped. Uzbek military assaults involving aerial bombardments, mortar fire, and ground troops pushed back the insurgents. There were casualties on all sides. Prior to and after the hostilities, Uzbekistan also forcibly displaced some 3,500 Uzbek civilians living near the border. Seventy-three displaced villagers were accused of having conspired with and aided the militants and, in a series of closed court hearings without material evidence, were sentenced to prison.

U.S. Policy
U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan has not addressed these problems effectively, largely because the message it conveyed to the Uzbek government has been inconsistent. The U.S. government has been willing to engage in a dialogue with the government to improve human rights practices in the country. However, Washington has failed to back up its policies with concrete action.

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Uzbekistan in 2000 she awarded the government U.S. $3 million in counterterrorism and border assistance, while urging it to distinguish "very carefully between peaceful devout believers and those who advocate terrorism." Yet the U.S. government has proved unwilling to use effective tools to ensure that the Uzbek government makes this very distinction. In 2000, the U.S. government failed to name Uzbekistan as a country of particular concern in the area of religious freedom under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, characterizing the crackdown on Muslims as political, rather than religious repression. This signaled to the Uzbek government that the U.S. was not likely to take any action to stop the repression of pious Muslim believers. In August 2001, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom failed to recommend to the Bush administration that Uzbekistan be included in its list of countries of particular concern for religious freedom. The administration is due to make its decision in late September.

As a recent positive example, in the context of the 2000 decision to certify that Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) assistance to Uzbekistan satisfied legal requirements that the recipient country demonstrates a commitment to human rights, the U.S. government effectively persuaded the Uzbek government to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. The certification process also yielded the release of human rights activist Mahbuba Kasymova.

On September 24, U.S. aircraft arrived in Uzbekistan for possible operations in Afghanistan.