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Human Rights Developments

The year 1998 was disastrous for human rights in Uzbekistan. In a sweeping effort to eliminate religion as a potential source of political opposition, the government of Islam Karimov employed mass arbitrary arrests, torture of men in custody, religious discrimination, and harassment of independent human rights activists and journalists.

Beginning in December 1997, the government of Uzbekistan stepped up its almost seven-year campaign against independent Muslims. It was triggered by the brutal murder of several policemen in Namangan, one of whom was beheaded. In response, police arrested hundreds of people in the Fergana Valley and Tashkent, many of whom were practicing Muslims who do not follow “official” Islam. Some men were taken directly from the street simply because they had beards, a perceived sign of piety. Police routinely fabricated evidence by allegedly planting small amounts of narcotics or ammunition on suspects, and beat and threatened arrestees, both at the time of arrest and during interrogation.

On January 23, a group of about 100 women assembled outside a police station in Tashkent—to protest the arrest and detention of their male relatives. Police broke up the demonstration [an extraordinary event in this repressive country] and detained the women until late evening. Police fined human rights activist Mukhtabar Akhmedova a portion of her monthly pension for her alleged role as an organizer of the protest.

Several show trials of those arrested during the crackdown took place in May, June, and July and were featured prominently in the state-controlled media, which were already running a propaganda campaign justifying the mass arrests as a necessary measure to counter a surging “fundamentalist” Islamic movement allegedly bent on overthrowing the existing state order. In one of the trials, which involved eight men, several defendants testified that police beat and tortured them with electric shock and suffocation while in detention, and coerced them into signing self-incriminating statements. The sentences in this trial, heard by the Supreme Court and seriously compromised by due process violations, ranged from three years in a reform colony to the death sentence.

Following sustained protest by the international community and human rights groups, the three-and-a-half year prison sentence of Rakhmat Otaqulov was commuted to forced labor and he was allowed to return home. Otaqulov, a Muslim religious teacher whose arrest was widely believed to be politically motivated, was convicted on June 10, 1997, for alleged illegal possession of narcotics and pistol cartridges. His brother, who actively protested his arrest, was among the eight defendants sentenced in the Supreme Court trial.

The government systematically closed independent mosques and harassed religious leaders, several of whom disappeared. In September 1997, Ne'matjon Parpiev, imam of a mosque in Andijan and former assistant to Sheikh Abduvali Qori Mirzoev, reportedly disappeared. Sheikh Mirzoev and another assistant, Ramazanbek Matkarimov, are believed to be in police custody or to have died in custody after the National Security Service (SNB) detained them in 1995.

Leading independent imam Obidkhon Nazarov suffered persistent government harassment in 1998 and has not been seen since March 5. The Spiritual Directorate had removed Nazarov from his position as imam in December 1995 for “disobedience to decrees of the Spiritual Directorate.” On April 29 the Fergana regional court sentenced his brother, Abdumalik Nazarov (arrested in the December crackdown), to nine years in prison for possession of illegal narcotics. Also in April, the government attempted to evict the Nazarov family from their home, but that effort failed thanks to intervention by international observers and local supporters. The criminal charges against and harassment of Nazarov were presumably designed to silence him and to discourage others from active participation in non-official Islam.

The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, adopted by the Supreme Council (or parliament) on May 1, sets out a legal framework for the broader repression of non-official religions. It serves to marginalize religious groups that might be perceived as a forum for opposition to President Islam Karimov’s administration, and it criminalizes the practices of some foreign religious groups that have places of worship in the country.

The law’s article 5 prohibits proselytism; penalties range from a fine of fifty to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (about U.S.$11) to three years of imprisonment. The law also prohibits private teaching of religious principles. Article 14 forbids non-clerics from wearing “ritual” attire in public. Wearing such clothing can result in a fine of five to ten times the amount of the minimum monthly wage or administrative arrest for up to fifteen days.

Under the law, religious groups face excessively burdensome registration requirements: for example, they must have one-hundred members who are citizens of Uzbekistan and over the age of 18. As of September, however, preliminary reports indicated that the government was allowing for exceptions on the membership requirement, and it appeared that it was not implementing the law fully with regard to non-Muslim groups. The law, together with amendments to the criminal code, sets out penalties of up to five years of imprisonment for religious leaders who fail to register their groups and for those who participate actively in a prohibited religious group.

In 1998, dozens of students were expelled from state institutions of higher education for wearing Islamic attire. Female students who wore hijab (traditional Muslim covering, usually including a head scarf, sometimes covering the face, and a long, loose-fitting robe or dress) were expelled, and male students with beards were subjected to pressure to shave or else were expelled. University administrators pointed to the law, particularly the prohibition on “ritual” dress in public, to support their decisions to deprive pious Muslim students of their right to education. Even primary and secondary school girls were expelled for wearing hijab . The SNB followed several expelled university students who had met with Human Rights Watch, and warned them not to speak with foreigners again.

Pastor Rashid Turibaev of the Baptist Full Gospel Christians Church in the Karakalpakstan autonomous region was sentenced in late October 1997 to two years of hard labor and internal exile for carrying out church services, on charges of organizing unsanctioned gatherings, meetings, and demonstrations. In May, police in Shakhrisabz reportedly raided the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

There was no free and independent media in Uzbekistan. The State Control Inspectorate continued to censor all press materials, and a new government body, the Qanoat (Uzbek for Abstemiousness) Center, was established in 1998 to review all religious literature and video and audio tapes, with the aim of stopping the flow of certain religious materials from abroad. Rahmonberdi Abdurakhmanov, an official of the Procuracy General, aptly stated in July that with the establishment of the Qanoat Center, “no non-state organization or state organization has any right to do anything concerning religion without the knowledge of our state.”

On August 1, unidentified men in plain clothes assaulted and beat Russian journalists Vitalii Ponomarev and Nikolai Mitrokhin on the street in Tashkent in broad daylight. The attackers had apparently been waiting for the two journalists to emerge from the home of Murat Zahidov, chair of the Committee for the Protection of Individuals of Uzbekistan. Ponomarev and Mitrokhin had just returned from the Fergana Valley, where they were investigating cases of arbitrary arrest of Islamic religious leaders.

The government apparently attempted to silence criticism by prosecuting journalists for slander as a criminal offense. On June 11, the Syr Darya regional court sentenced radio journalist and satirist Shodi Mardiev to eleven years in prison for slander, illegal acquisition or sale of foreign currency, and extortion. The charges against Mardiev were brought by Talat-Abdukhalikhazada Abasov, deputy procurator of Samarkand. Mardiev had satirized Abasov in a June 1997 radio broadcast that reportedly exposed Abasov’s abuse of power in favoring a local business man. Sixty-two-year-old Mardiev was reportedly held in solitary confinement until the time of his appeal, which he lost. He is in seriously poor health and is said to have suffered two brain hemorrhages while in detention.

In a positive development, participants in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s June seminar on women’s issues were given a forum to discuss openly the pervasiveness of domestic violence in Uzbekistan. This was a welcome first step toward addressing domestic violence, but major obstacles remained, among them, police indifference to women’s complaints.





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