(Berlin) – The Uzbek authorities’ amnesty of a prominent journalist and independent religious figure should open the path to the release of other activists and religious believers imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Hayrullo Hamidov, who served five years of a six-year sentence on apparent politically motivated charges, was ordered released on February 11, 2015.
“Hayrullo Hamidov’s release is wonderful news for him, his family, and all those who value his religious commentary and journalism, but he never should have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Hamidov’s imprisonment was unjust and the Uzbek government’s longstanding policy of trumped-up prosecutions against peaceful religious believers should end.”
Hamidov, 39, is a journalist, sports commentator, poet, and radio host known for his popular religious sermons. Before his arrest in 2010, he wrote for the sports magazines Interfootball and Champion and was editor of the socio-political journal Odamlar Orasida (Among the People), which the State Agency for Print Publications and Information ordered closed in 2007. Hamidov hosted radio programs on religious topics that became very popular among Uzbekistan’s youth, in part because he covered controversial topics the state-controlled media largely ignored such as corruption, public health, and prostitution. Noting that Hamidov’s sermons were widely disseminated on MP3s even after his arrest, one Western scholar dubbed him “Central Asia’s first independent religious celebrity.”
As Hamidov’s popularity grew, officers from Uzbekistan National Security Services (SNB) began to intimidate him, detaining him at least twice prior to his 2010 arrest and warning that he would be imprisoned if he continued to speak publicly about religion.
Police arrested Hamidov on January 23, 2010, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, on charges of “membership in a banned religious-extremist organization” and “possession of materials containing ideas of religious extremism and threatening to public safety.” During a search of his home, police allegedly found audio recordings of a prominent, independent Uzbek imam, Abduvali-qori Mirzaev, who was forcibly disappeared in 1995, and whom the government has accused of spreading radical Islam.
Hamidov was summarily tried alongside 14 others in a closed trial. Local rights activists told Human Rights Watch that no other evidence of Hamidov’s membership in “banned religious groups” was introduced at the trial.
In May 2010 the court convicted Hamidov and all co-defendants for membership in the banned extremist Islamist group Jihodchilar (meaning “jihadists”), which rights groups and regional experts conclude never existed. The court sentenced Hamidov and the other defendants to fines and prison terms of up to six years.
Hamidov elected not to appeal his sentence, reportedly telling his mother that there was no hope of overturning his conviction. He served his sentence in Kyzyltepa prison in Navoi province. Before being granted amnesty, Hamidov wrote four letters of apology to President Islam Karimov, publicly accepting his guilt.
The Uzbek government has imprisoned thousands of people on politically motivated charges, including human rights and opposition activists, journalists, religious believers, artists, and other perceived critics. The most numerically significant category of politically motivated arrests and convictions is among the country’s independent Muslims, who practice their faith outside strict state controls or belong to unregistered religious organizations.
The government has waged an unrelenting, multi-year campaign of arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture against independent Muslims, sentencing many to lengthy prison terms for “anti-constitutional activity” (article 159) and participation in “banned religious, extremist” groups or possession of “banned literature” (articles 216, 242, and 244). These statutes contain provisions that are so vague and overbroad that they are wholly incompatible with international human rights norms.
The government has also mobilized its significant security apparatus to prevent any potential contest for influence between President Karimov and independent-minded Muslim leaders and figures. Since the mid-1990s the government has imprisoned or driven into exile nearly every independent Muslim leader in the country, including clerics, imams, commentators, and philosophers representing diverse schools of Islamic thought. Independent religious figures in prison for no reason other than their peaceful exercise of their freedom of religion and belief include: Ruhiddin Fahriddinov, Akram Yuldashev, Botirbek Eshkuizev, Bahrom Ibragimov, Davron Kabilov, Davron Tojiev, and Ravshanbek Vafoev.
Beyond strict limitations authorities place on Muslims’ independent religious activity, religious education, or possession of religious literature, authorities also imprison and fine Christians who conduct peaceful religious activities for administrative offenses, such as “illegal religious teaching.”
Uzbekistan’s policies and practices violate its international legal obligations on freedom of religion, Human Rights Watch said. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right of the individual to “have … a religion or belief of his choice, and [the] freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private to manifest” it. Parties to the ICCPR, including Uzbekistan, undertake to ensure freedom of religion but also commit not to discriminate on the basis of religion.
The US State Department has designated Uzbekistan a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) every year since 2006 under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for Uzbekistan’s particularly “egregious, ongoing, and systematic” violations of freedom of religion or belief and other human rights. While the CPC designation envisages the possibility of sanctions, the Obama administration has elected each year to waive them.
Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the US and the European Union, should reiterate their calls to the Uzbek government to address its abysmal record on religious freedom, Human Rights Watch said.
An important venue for raising these concerns is the UN Human Rights Council, where UN member countries can mark Uzbekistan’s systematic non-cooperation with UN experts and its continuing flouting of its human rights obligations. Countries at the Human Rights Council should underscore their concern about human rights violations in Uzbekistan and the government’s refusal of access to 11 UN monitors, including the special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief and on torture. The council should establish a dedicated, country-specific mechanism to ensure sustained scrutiny and reporting on Uzbekistan’s human rights situation.
“Uzbekistan’s international partners should deliver the clear message to Tashkent that while Hamidov’s release is a positive step, its violations of religious freedom should stop or the government will pay a price,” Swerdlow said.