Thank you for holding this hearing and for inviting me to testify.
If you would like us to analyze the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom around the world, then you’ve given us a relatively easy task. I believe that the report does what the Congress intended and required when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. It gives us a comprehensive picture of violations of religious freedom around the world. It does so honestly, pulling no punches in its description of abuses by America’s friends and foes alike. And it recognizes that promoting religious freedom is in America’s national interest, in part because it “dampens the appeal of religious extremism and religion-based terrorism.”
The State Department, and particularly Ambassador Hanford and his team, deserve great credit for publishing this kind of candid report on human rights violations around the world. At times, however, the Department has acted as if merely describing such problems is enough. Time and again, American diplomats, when asked “what are you doing” about human rights violations in a particular country, have responded: “We put out an excellent human rights report or religious freedom report – doesn’t that prove we care?” But of course, a report is not a policy. To make a difference, words must be backed by actions. And those actions must follow from a coherent strategy, consistently pursued.
Our focus, therefore, should be on how the administration is using these reports. Is it applying the tools Congress has given it to combat the abuses described in the report? Is respect for religious freedom truly a consequential issue in America’s bilateral relationships with governments that restrict religious freedom? How seriously, in other words, does the State Department take the very serious concerns it raises in this report?
A critical test of the Department’s seriousness is its response to countries that try to justify the suppression of religious freedom by claiming it is part of the struggle against terrorism. One such country is China, which has repeatedly sought – and claimed -- American support for its crackdown against Muslims suspected of separatism in its western province of Xinjiang,
asserting that all those it is persecuting are terrorists. As the State Department report makes clear, authorities in Xinjiang have in fact cracked down on all independent manifestations of faith by Muslims. Officials have prohibited the building of new mosques and the teaching of Islam to children, and forbidden teachers, professors and university students from practicing their religion openly. The administration needs to make equally clear, at the highest possible level, that this kind of persecution is wrong, and that it undermines any legitimate struggle against terror, and that it will hurt China’s relationship with the United States.
Another key test this year will be Afghanistan, if only by virtue of the U.S. military presence in that country and the extraordinary influence the United States has on its fate.
Afghanistan recently adopted a new Constitution. It is a solid framework for Afghanistan’s future. It seeks to protect human rights. It shows how determined Afghans are to settle their problems with words instead of guns. But the institutions needed to protect the Afghan people’s rights, including their right to religious freedom, are still weak. And the Constitution does not adequately address the role of Islamic law, and its relationship to human rights protections. The Constitution will be interpreted by the Afghan Supreme Court. And there are powerful factions in Kabul who, if given the chance, may try to stack the Court with justices who will implement conservative interpretations of Islam that are rejected by the majority of Afghans and that may violate human rights.
Meanwhile, outside Kabul, much of the Afghan countryside remains under the control of warlords, some of whom have been supported by the United States, who have free rein to abuse the Afghan people. In the western province of Herat, for example, which is ruled by the warlord Ismail Khan, some of the most oppressive practices of the Taliban era have been recreated. Girls cannot attend university classes with boys. Religious police patrol the streets. Women have been detained and subjected to forced virginity tests.
The solution to these problems cannot be provided by a State Department report. The key is for the United States to use its muscle to help the Afghan central government stand up to unelected, authoritarian forces, and to establish security and the rule of law throughout the country. This will require, at a minimum, expanding the NATO-led international security force in Afghanistan so that it covers all the key areas of the country, as the Bush administration has promised, but not delivered.
But perhaps the most obvious test of the administration’s seriousness this year, as in past years, will be its willingness to add the world’s worst violators of religious freedom to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act.
The CPC list can be a powerful tool. But we should remember that it is primarily a symbolic tool, because it does not automatically lead to the imposition of sanctions. The premise behind the CPC list is that many countries would be shamed to be named – so much so that they would be willing to change their behavior to avoid designation.
Logically, however, that assumption holds true only for countries that value their relationships with the United States and that do not want to see them suffer. Putting North Korea or Iran on the list, for example, is certainly the right thing to do. But it is probably not going to have much impact in the short run on countries such as these, which are already estranged from the United States over other issues. When you’re already in the Axis of Evil you probably don’t worry much about getting on yet another top ten list. Putting a U.S. ally on the list, on the other hand, would make a difference, because such a designation would represent a significant change in the quality of its relationship with the United States.
In that respect, I want to focus on two U.S. allies that haven’t been named CPC’s in the past, but which clearly merit designation.
The first is Saudi Arabia.
As the State Department has comprehensively documented, the government of Saudi Arabia forbids all demonstration of religious faith that is not consistent with the state-sanctioned interpretation of the Sunni branch of Islam. Shi’a Muslims, who constitute about eight percent of the Saudi population, face severe discrimination in employment and education. Their books are banned, their religious ceremonies discouraged, their most basic rights violated because judges are officially permitted to ignore their testimony in court. Many Shi’a leaders have been imprisoned. One cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Turki al-Saab, was sentenced last year to flogging and 7 years in prison after making comments critical of the government to the Wall Street Journal.
Saudi Arabia also completely forbids all public non-Muslim religious activities. Non-Muslim clergy are prohibited from visiting the country. The distribution of Bibles is banned. Many Christians have been imprisoned or deported for practicing their faith. The Saudi authorities have even punished private religious expression, raiding homes where private worship was taking place and arresting the participants. In one such case reported by the State Department, 2 Filipino Christian residents were sentenced to 30 days in prison, 150 lashes, and deportation in April of 2002 for conducting a Roman Catholic prayer group in their home.
The Departments Religious Freedom Report is crystal clear in its judgment of Saudi Arabia’s record. It concludes, simply, that “freedom of religion does not exist” in Saudi Arabia. The State Department has been able to make such a categorical statement about only two countries in the world: North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
And yet Saudi Arabia has never been among the countries the State Department designates as “of particular concern.” This obvious contradiction undermines the credibility of the entire CPC process, especially because you would have to be from Mars not to understand the reason why Saudi Arabia has escaped designation – because it is a particularly close ally of the United States in a sensitive part of the world.
Fixing this problem is particularly urgent now because President Bush has, to his credit, promised a new kind of American foreign policy in the Arab world – a policy that would place the promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, front and center in America’s relationships with governments that have not heard this message from Washington in the past.
Reasonable people can differ about the best ways to promote respect for political and religious freedoms in this extraordinarily complex part of the world. But at a minimum, we should all be able to agree that what President Bush has called a “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East requires the United States to speak candidly when freedom is denied. Designating Saudi Arabia a CPC provides an opportunity to do just that, and I believe it would encourage the Saudi government to take steps to improve its record. Failing to designate Saudi Arabia would send exactly the wrong message to governments in the region: that whatever President Bush may say, their relationships with the United States still protect them from real scrutiny.
A second country that should be added to the CPC list is Uzbekistan.
The government of Uzbekistan has essentially carried on the policy towards religion that it inherited from the Soviet Union. It is a policy based on a simple, uncompromising premise: that which is not controlled is forbidden. Uzbekistan is a primarily Muslim country, in which the government seeks to supervise religious worship and belief, by overseeing the Islamic hierarchy, the content of Imams’ sermons, and the substance of their religious materials. Throughout the past year, the Uzbek government has continued to persecute and detain those who practice Islam outside of this government-controlled system.
Over 6,000 such people remain in prison in Uzbekistan. That is a huge number in such a small country – imagine if over 60,000 Americans were imprisoned for practicing their faith, and you will have some sense of the impact this persecution has had on Uzbek society.
Those who are imprisoned for practicing their faith outside state-controls are often subject to the most horrific forms of torture: electric shock, asphyxiation with gas masks or plastic bags, injections of psychotropic drugs, beatings with batons or metal rods, hanging from the ceiling by the wrists or ankles, rape and sodomy. As in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, relatives of those imprisoned have been detained and tortured in front of their loved ones. Often such torture is used to punish prisoners for attempting to worship inside prison.
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 a banned Islamic organization. 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.
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 alleged 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 arrests and convictions continue, with dozens of independent Muslims on trial just this week for their religious beliefs and practices.
Many of these religious prisoners in Uzbekistan, Mr. Chairman, are accused of belonging to a banned Islamic organization known as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. This organization espouses extreme views that are antithetical to human rights. It is anti-Semitic, anti-woman, and profoundly anti-American. Nevertheless, it has not advocated or committed acts of violence. Its members are persecuted in Uzbekistan for their beliefs, not for their actions.
Moreover, not all religious prisoners in Uzbekistan are members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Some thousands are simply independent Muslims not affiliated with any organization, who are persecuted for nothing more than practicing their faith by praying at home or studying privately, or being affiliated with imams not registered or out of favor with the government. Hundreds of people have been imprisoned and tortured, for example, simply for having attended the mosque of Imam Nazarov, a registered state Imam who refused to praise Uzbek President Karimov in his sermons or to inform on members of his congregation to the Uzbek security police, and who has been missing since 1998.
These policies are not just cruel, but dangerous. They deny the Uzbek people any lawful means to practice their faith outside a co-opted, politicized, Soviet style Islamic establishment. They have shut down the space in which a genuinely moderate, independent Islam can exist in Uzbekistan. They have given Muslims who don’t want to go to a state mosque and praise the President nowhere to go – except to fringe organizations, like Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which flourish in the shadows. They potentially strengthen the very forces they are ostensibly designed to weaken.
In the past year, the State Department has urged the Uzbek authorities to take a number of reasonable steps to address these problems – by holding torturers accountable, introducing the right of habeas corpus and other legal protections for detainees, and implementing legal reforms that would decriminalize independent religious observance. In response, the Uzbek government has taken no meaningful steps forward. Despite the good relationship the United States has tried to establish with Uzbekistan, despite the military and economic assistance the United States has provided, the Uzbek government has refused to budge on these U.S. concerns.
Uzbekistan cannot be a good ally for the United States in the struggle against terrorism unless it stops persecuting Muslims for the peaceful expression of their faith. CPC designation would send a clear message to the Uzbek government – that true allies allow their people peaceful avenues for expressing their beliefs, instead of driving the faithful underground. I urge the Committee to press the administration to make such a designation.
I should add, Mr. Chairman, that minority religions are also subjected to government harassment in Uzbekistan. According to the State Department report, a number of Christian churches have been denied registration in Uzbekistan in the last year. 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; seven Christians were imprisoned, six for leading or attending religious gatherings at private homes and one for “inciting religious hatred.”
Uzbekistan is not the only Central Asian nation that restricts religious freedom and that merits CPC designation. Another such country is Turkmenistan. My understanding is that the State Department is seriously considering designating Turkmenistan a CPC this year, and I would urge the Committee to encourage such a decision as well.
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.
The Turkmen government further curtailed religious freedom in November by promulgating a new religion law. The new law added criminal penalties for "illegal" unregistered religious activity, with the potential for imprisonment and hard labor in prison camps.
In all these cases, Mr. Chairman, and in many others, the findings of this report, are a call to action. They should represent not the final word but the opening salvo of a consistent American strategy to support religious freedom and human rights throughout the world. I’m grateful to this Committee for its oversight of this process, and would be happy to take any questions you may have.