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State Department Fails to Designate Partners as Violators of Religious Freedom

(Washington) The U.S. State Department's designation today of countries that deny religious freedom once again failed to single out some of the world's most egregious violators, Human Rights Watch said today.

The State Department named six countries, Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan to its list of "Countries of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act. All were named in 2001, the last time the list was updated. Not named were such countries as Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the right to worship freely is systematically violated.
"The Bush administration says it wants to promote human rights in the Muslim world," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "But it can hardly say it's trying if it's afraid to state the simple truth about some of its partners."

The State Department failed to designate Saudi Arabia a Country of Particular Concern despite concluding in its most recent International Religious Freedom Report that "religious freedom does not exist" there. The government forbids all demonstration of religious faith that is not consistent with the state-sanctioned interpretation of the Sunni branch of Islam. Shi'a Muslims face severe discrimination. All public non-Muslim religious activities are prohibited. The distribution of Bibles is banned. Many Christians have been imprisoned or deported for practicing their faith.

Uzbekistan was not designated even though for nearly five years its government has persecuted thousands of individuals whose peaceful practice of Islam falls beyond state controls. In a briefing paper published in August 2002, Human Rights Watch detailed the arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and torture of hundreds of independent Muslims in Uzbekistan since October 2001, the last time the administration issued its religious freedom designations. In 2002 alone, Human Rights Watch documented five deaths in custody, apparently as a result of torture, of men convicted for their religious practices or affiliations. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had recommended that Uzbekistan be placed on a "watch list" of countries that might be designated as major violators if they do not change their practices. But today's State Department statement failed to put Uzbekistan on notice, or to urge reform there.

Also not designated was Turkmenistan, one of the most repressive countries in the world, which in 1997 outlawed all religions except Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy. Among the groups most affected by the Turkmen government's draconian restrictions on religion are Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentacostalists, Baptists, Adventists and Hare Krishnas. Islamic groups also suffer state harassment. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had recommended that the administration designate Turkmenistan a country of particular concern.

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