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Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Georgia

Letter to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

Dear Commission Members, We are writing in advance of your discussions on this year’s designations for Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom. We urge you to designate Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as countries of particular concern under the terms of the International Religious Freedom Act.

We welcomed the Commission’s recommendation, made last year, that the U.S. government designate Turkmenistan a CPC. We used every opportunity to press the administration to act on this recommendation. We ask the Commission to make the same recommendation with regard to Uzbekistan, as it continues to meet the statutory criteria for countries of particular concern, as set out in section 3 (11) of the International Religious Freedom Act—the legal and practical suppression of religious beliefs, combined with systematic torture or “other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty or the security of persons.”

We also urge the Commission to consider placing Georgia on the Commission’s Watch List of countries where grave violations of religious freedom have occurred. We also ask that the Commission give serious consideration to a visit to Georgia in the coming year, to determine whether the government is taking adequate steps to stem mob violence against nontraditional faiths in that country and hold accountable those responsible for the violence.


In previous years, Human Rights Watch has submitted to the Commission detailed accounts of the Uzbek government’s persecution of those who practice Islam outside of government-controlled institutions. We fully support the Commissions finding, published in its March 2002 report that the crackdown against independent Islam has resulted in the arrests of thousands and torture of many prisoners. We also agree with your finding that Uzbekistan’s security concerns are not legitimately addressed through religious persecution of independent Muslims. Regrettably, Uzbek policy and practices have not changed in this regard. Throughout the past year, the Uzbek government has continued to arbitrarily detain, torture and persecute those who practice Islam outside of government-controlled institutions. Those convicted in prior years continue to suffer the compounded effects of religious persecution as they serve out their lengthy prison terms. Minority religions also continue to face grave difficulties in organizing and observing their religion.

In the first six months of 2003, Human Rights Watch’s Tashkent office documented ninety-three convictions or new arrests of Muslims for the peaceful expression of their religious beliefs. From June to August, Human Rights Watch followed seven trials against thirty men and six women, all charged with non-violent offences connected to their practice of Islam outside of government

controls. In all of these trials, defendants raised allegations in court that law enforcement authorities had tortured them in pre-trial detention. The judges in all cases failed to adequately investigate the claims and convicted the defendants on the basis of evidence allegedly gained through the use of torture. Sentences ranged from one two-year suspended sentence to fifteen years of imprisonment.

The cumulative effect of the now six-year campaign against independent Muslims is that thousands of people are held in Uzbekistan’s prisons for the peaceful expression of their beliefs. Human Rights Watch continues to receive credible reports of torture and ill-treatment of these prisoners, in particular, for holding to their Muslim beliefs, as well as torture of other prisoners who show sympathy to religious prisoners.

For example, at the end of September 2003, guards at Navoi prison 64/29 beat “Sherzod S.” (a pseudonym) on the soles of his feet until he lost consciousness as a punishment for praying. When he regained consciousness, the authorities sent him to a punishment cell, warned him not to make a complaint, and tried to force him to bow in prayer to the deputy head of the prison. In a separate incident in September, the head of the operations section of the prison apparently ordered that all water containers be taken from the religious prisoners and burnt. The prisoners understood this to be a means of stopping them from carrying out their daily ablutions, a ritual that many Muslims believe they must carry out before performing prayers.

On April 26, 2003 a guard at Karshi prison 64/49 put “Bakhrom B.” (a pseudonym) into a punishment cell and savagely beat him as punishment for praying. Bakhrom’s father told Human Rights Watch that he later complained to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture about the incident. Apparently in response to this complaint, on September 12, the prison authorities called Bakhrom to meet with the deputy head of the prison and a procurator. They forced him to sign a statement saying that he had not been beaten. Since then he has been subjected to further violent treatment.

In November 2002, religious prisoners were punished for fasting during Ramadan. Keston News Service reported on November 19, 2002, that one hundred and fifty prisoners in Karshi prison 64/61 were put into punishment cells for observing the fast.

The Chirchik City Court added three years to the sentence of Tolib Khaidarov after he had refused prison authorities’ demands that he abandon his religious beliefs. The case was decided in a closed court hearing on August 8, 2003. Khaidarov had no defense counsel and no witnesses for the defense were presented. Khaidarov was a religious prisoner, accused of non-violent activities (anti-constitutional activities, article 159, and belonging to an illegal religious organization, article 216). He was due to be released under the terms of his sentence on July 17, 2003. Prior to his expected release, prison authorities demanded that he reject his previous religious beliefs. He replied, “I don’t reject Islam.” He was subsequently told that he was being charged with breaching internal prison rules. The allegations included that he got up too early in the morning and that he brought food out of the breakfast hall. On this basis, he was sentenced to an additional three years. He claims that the case was fabricated against him because of his refusal to reject his faith.

The Uzbek authorities not only punish religious prisoners for their faith, but other prisoners who chose to associate with them. On September 19, 2003, guards at Navoi prison 64/29 beat four prisoners in front of many observers on the way out of the dining hall at lunch time because they had spoken to religious prisoners during lunch.

On May 15, Orif Eshanov died in pre-trial custody in the city of Karshi, apparently from torture after being detained by the National Security Service some days earlier on suspicion of belonging to the banned non-violent Islamic organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir. Although there has been coordinated and sustained international pressure to conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Ershanov’s death, the authorities have thus far refused to do so.

Minority religions were also subjected to government harassment. Throughout the past year the Keston News Service and Forum 18 published information about the following incidents that took place in 2003:

-on seven occasions Christian groups were prevented from gathering due to police raids;
-three members of Christian groups were fined for their religious activities;
-two Christian groups were denied registration;
-two Christians were detained. Police beat one of them.
-seven Christians were imprisoned, six for leading or attending religious gatherings at private homes and one for “inciting religious hatred.”

Hare Krishnas also reported to Forum 18 that authorities had prevented them from gathering, had fined them, and had confiscated their literature. They also reported that they fear wearing their saris due to the ban on religious dress under the Uzbek religion law.


As you know, Turkmen law permits only Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church to operate in Turkmenistan. According to the Russian rights group Memorial, even these confessions operate under strict government control, and their situation has worsened during the past year. Memorial points, for example, to the government’s implementation of restrictions stating only ethnic Turkmen can serve as imams, even in official mosques. The group reported that this September authorities ordered the removal and replacement of an imam from a mosque in Dashauz province because he was an ethnic Uzbek. The government has also denied the right of the Russian Orthodox Church to publish its literature and to import of literature from abroad, according to Memorial. Since December 2002, the group reports, the Turkmen government has even forbidden subscriptions to the magazine of the Moscow Patriarchate, published in Russia.

The Turkmen government harshly persecutes adherents of nearly all other faiths. Memorial reports that the government subjects unofficial religious communities to ceaseless persecution with the aim of completely eliminating unsanctioned religious activity in the country. In a resolution adopted on April 16, 2003, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights cited the government “restrictions on the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and religion, . . . including by the harassment and persecution of members of independent faith groups and the discriminatory use of the registration procedures for such groups.”

To date, the Turkmen government has made no moves toward ending this policy. A recent report by Forum 18 details government raids on minority religious faiths, and official harassment, discrimination, and intimidation endured by their adherents throughout the year.


In previous submissions to the Commission, Human Rights Watch prepared detailed accounts documenting Georgia’s indulgence of violence against non-Orthodox Christian faiths. We have described the now entrenched pattern of organized groups of civilian militants attacking non-Orthodox Christian faiths, primarily Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelists, Pentacostalists, and Baptists. In 2001 and 2002 there were dozens of attacks. While the number of large mob attacks has subsided somewhat, in 2003 there were dozens of smaller attacks. Moreover, once a phenomenon limited to a single district of the capital, Tbilisi, this violence now occurs throughout the country. Once limited to the three faiths enumerated above, the violence now affects Catholics and dissident Orthodox groups. Attackers were once limited to the followers of Basili Mkalavishvili, but now they include people with diverse affiliations.

Attacks have spread because the government tolerates them. Investigations, when they occur, are shockingly lax. Mkalavishvili, the ringleader behind many of the assaults is currently on trial, but is in hiding. The government has not prevented him or his followers from perpetrating attacks throughout his prosecution. This culture of impunity has had a degrading impact on Georgian society. It has made religious nationalism an acceptable if not necessary element of political platforms. And it has made intolerance acceptable in Georgian society. The most vivid example of this is the candidacy of Guram Sharadze for parliament in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Sharadze is seeking to represent the Gldani suburb of Tbilisi, where Mkalavishvili carried out the majority of his attacks, Sharadze filed suit against the Jehovah’s Witnesses registration in 1999 and has played an important role in demonizing minority religions. Earlier this month, for example, he prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from importing their religious literature and threatened to burn the literature if it left the customs terminal.

Spreading of attacks
Several examples from 2003 illustrate the phenomenon of spreading attacks. In July 2002, two Orthodox priests led a crowd that blockaded a private house in a Tbilisi suburb that was a venue for a Russian Pentecostal church. The mob renewed the siege in May and June 2003, bringing local police to declare a ban on further religious services there, citing their alleged disruptive effect upon neighbors.

In June 2003, a Baptist church was burned down in the village of Akhalsopeli, in eastern Georgia. The attack followed alleged threats from the local Orthodox priest. After two services in the burned-out church, the Baptist minister reported continuing pressure by the Orthodox church for the congregation to disband.

While religious believers have suffered more than 100 assaults throughout the past three and a half years, only one criminal trial has begun, that of Basili Mkalavishvili and Petre Ivanidze, for several violent attacks perpetrated against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Indicted after long delay in September 2001, Mkalavishvili and Ivanidze went on trial in January 2002. The trial is currently adjourned, as Mkalavishvili is in hiding and his whereabouts are unknown.

The demonization of non-traditional Christian faiths, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the Georgian media makes these communities even more vulnerable to attack. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists reported to Human Rights Watch in 2003 that school teachers in Tbilisi and its humiliated children from their communities.

Hearings in late 2002 and 2003 in the trial against Father Basili Mkalavishvili and Petre Ivanidze revealed the judiciary’s disregard for the safety of, or justice for, the victims of Basilist attacks. The state prosecutor repeatedly took the side of the defense against the victims. The court itself displayed leniency toward the perpetrators of religious mob violence.

Human Rights Watch’s Tbilisi office had the unique opportunity to monitor all of the trial hearings. We found that the court failed to stop the defendants, their lawyers, and supporters from constantly issuing violent threats and humiliating insults against the attack victims and their lawyers in court. Judicial authorities allowed the Mkalavishvili side to dominate the courtroom in a way that constantly threatened to spill over into violent attack. For example, at the October 28, 2002 hearing, Mkalavishvili’s lawyer said, “I can beat all the Jehovists myself!…And I want them to know that all the security forces here…support us!” He also told a victim, “We know how to please a person, or beat him if such a necessity exists! We even know how to eliminate one. I’ve done it myself before. If you want to sit next to Jehovists, then go ahead sit, but be careful, something might happen to you.” Later he told that same witness, “I’m going to destroy you!” The judge never reprimanded him or stopped him from making such threatening statements in court.

At an April 29, 2003 hearing, Mkalavishvili shouted at victims, “We’ll destroy all of you, you should be killed, we’ll have a bloody attack on you soon!” His co-defendant Petre Ivanidze added, “You should be beaten until your teeth are broken, you scumbags!” Again, judicial and law enforcement authorities took no action in response.

Witnesses for the prosecution felt the threats so poignantly that in 2002 and 2003, they failed to appear out of concern for their own safety. On April 29, 2003, Mkalavishvili supporters violently expelled prosecution witness Ketevan Shekhniashvili from the courtroom. Court authorities failed to react. The witness later returned to the courtroom and gave her testimony. However, instead of focusing on the alleged offense—how the Basilists had violently dispersed a prayer meeting at her home two years before—the prosecutor and even the judge began to interrogate her, including about her religious beliefs and affiliation.

At the April 29, 2003 hearing the Basilists physically assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawyer Andre Carbonneau and several international observers--from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United States Embassy, and Human Rights Watch. Police looked on, laughing, but took no action to stop the Mkalavishvili supporters.

Even when the court ordered police to take action against the Basilists, law enforcement failed to do so. For instance, on June 4, 2003, a Tbilisi court ruled that Mkalavishvili should be put under preventative detention for three months in connection with the burning of United Bible Society and Baptist books (which took place in February 2002). Police failed to carry out the court order.

Placing Georgia on the Commission’s Watch List, and visiting the country with the aim of issuing an authoritative report with concrete recommendations for follow-up action, will reinforce efforts by other agencies, not least the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief who conducted a visit to Georgia earlier this year, at pressing the Georgian government to a genuine and effective accountability process for perpetrators of religious violence.

We look forward to further dialogue with the Commission as the decision-making process moves forward. Please do not hesitate to contact us for further information. We thank you for your attention to the concerns outlined in this letter.


Rachel Denber
Acting Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia divsion

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