A wave of arrests following this week’s violence in Tashkent indicates that the Uzbek government is using the occasion to take reprisals against peaceful Muslim dissidents and their relatives, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch received reports of the arbitrary detentions that took place within hours of the attacks of at least 11 people who are mostly former religious prisoners and their relatives. Those still detained are being held incommunicado.
"Detainees held incommunicado in Uzbekistan are in immediate danger of torture," said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “The Uzbek government should stop targeting people for their religious affiliations and should immediately grant detainees access to family members and lawyers.”
The Uzbek government’s actions recall the wave of arbitrary arrests that followed the bombing of government buildings in Tashkent in February 1999. They are also consistent with an Uzbek government policy to prosecute peaceful Muslim dissidents on charges of religious “extremism,” who are not charged with any acts of violence.
On March 30, Human Rights Watch released a report, “Creating Enemies of the State,” documenting the government’s long-standing campaign of arresting and torturing Muslim dissidents. In recent years, thousands of independent Muslims—people who practice their faith outside government religious institutions—have been imprisoned for their non-violent religious beliefs, practices and affiliations.
“We are concerned that the recent arrests signal the launch of another intensification of the ongoing crackdown, similar to what happened after the Tashkent bombing in 1999,” said Denber.
Immediately after the first incidents of violence, which began on March 29, police initiated a campaign of so-called “preventative” measures, targeting in particular former religious prisoners for detention and interrogation. Police maintain a list of thousands of “dangerous people,” including independent Muslims.
“The government seems to be going after the usual suspects, targeting religious dissidents and their families—people they’ve already prejudged as ‘enemies of the state,’” Denber said.
Dilshod Mamurov, a father of four, was taken from his home by police at 10 p.m. on March 29. Police took him to the Sobir Rakhimov police department in Tashkent, but then denied to his family members that they were holding him and refused to tell them where he had been taken. Finally, on the night of March 31, police revealed that he is being held in the Tashkent City Police Department, but did not allow family members to see him. The charges against him remain unclear. Mamurov received a three-year suspended sentence in 1999 for alleged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a nonviolent Islamic group that calls for the establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan and other traditionally Muslim countries. During his detention in 1999, police suffocated him using a gas and beat him, leaving bruises all over his body. He is currently being held incommunicado.
Also on March 29, police arrested Akiljon Ziahonov, a former religious prisoner who was accused of so-called “Wahhabism”—a pejorative term used by the Uzbek government to suggest people are “fundamentalists” and not as a reference to actual believers in Wahhabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia. Ziahonov was convicted on charges of “anti-state activities” in 1998. He was one of hundreds of people jailed for their affiliation with the well-known Tashkent imam, Obidkhon Nazarov. Ziahonov is currently being held incommunicado at the Tashkent City Department of Internal Affairs.
Relatives of former religious prisoners convicted on charges of anti-state activity and religious “extremism,” were also detained and interrogated.
On March 31, Darmon Sultanova, the mother of two sons who were accused of “Wahhabism” and arrested in 1998, returned to her home in Chirchik, outside the capital, to find her house, which she shares with relatives, empty. Police had taken Sultanova’s daughter, who is disabled, her daughter-in-law, and her three young grandchildren into custody. The chief of the Chirchik City Department of Internal Affairs told Human Rights Watch that the detention had been part of a policy of “preventative” measures.
The two women and three children were released later the same night. However, police refused to return their passports and other identification. Police also confiscated copies of the Koran and state-published religious pamphlets found in the family home during a search.
During interrogation, officers called the women “Wahhabis” and threatened, “We will destroy you all.” Officers ordered the young women to stop wearing hijab, or Muslim attire ranging from a scarf covering the hair to clothing covering the entire body and face. Referring to Sultanova, who had been in Tashkent during the day, the head of the criminal investigations department reportedly asked, “What did she go to Tashkent for, to blow up the city?”
Human Rights Watch’s report details how police tortured Sultanova’s sons following their arrest in 1998, detained Sultanova and physically mistreated her, put her and her sister under house arrest, and then arrested their elderly father on trumped-up narcotics charges. The young men confessed under torture to authorities’ accusations that they plotted to explode the Charvok dam outside Tashkent, and were sentenced to death by firing squad in 1999.
On the morning of March 29, three men in another family were reportedly arrested. Police acknowledge holding two of the men and said they had already been sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, but deny that the third is in custody. More than 72 hours after their arrest, the men were still being held incommunicado at a police station outside the capital. Police claimed the men had failed to appear for questioning. All three men are on the police list of “dangerous persons” because a relative was convicted in 2000 of so-called “religious extremist” activity.
Also arrested was Bobur Makhmudov, son of writer and political prisoner Mamadli Makhmudov. About nine plainclothes officers arrested Bobur Makhmudov at his home on the night of March 30. Authorities refused to disclose his whereabouts in custody or even acknowledge that he was detained. He is being held incommunicado. When a Human Rights Watch representative insisted that Makhmudov have access to a lawyer, one officer replied, "He doesn’t need a lawyer."
His father, Mamadali Makhmudov, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 1999 on trumped-up charges of participating in a “criminal society” and using the mass media to publicly insult the president of Uzbekistan. Police tortured him in order to compel him also to confess to involvement in the February 1999 bombings and to implicate exiled political leader Muhammed Solih. At his trial, Makhmudov described the torture police used to force him to confess.
Also among those arrested was a female resident of Tashkent who wears hijab. Her family received a telephone call from an unidentified caller who said she had been detained off the street. Police have not provided the family with any further information on her whereabouts, and it is feared that she is missing in custody.
Human Rights Watch called on members of the international community to send a strong message to the Uzbek government to observe human rights norms during counterterrorism operations.
"The Uzbek government may be looking for carte blanche now, for a sign that the international community is willing to accept poor human rights compliance in times of national security emergency,” said Denber. “That’s why it’s crucial for the international community to make it clear that torture and arbitrary arrests are unacceptable and will have consequences.”