Background

Enforced Disappearance and Death in Custody of Religious Leader Akram Yuldashev

Akram Yuldashev, 52, was the father of four children and a former mathematics teacher who became a prominent religious and spiritual leader in Andijan and the Fergana valley in the 1990s.  Yuldashev’s case plays a major role in the Uzbek government’s narrative about terrorism and Islamism, and he remains a central figure in the government’s official view of the Andijan massacre of May 13, 2005.

Though he lacked a formal religious education, in 1992 he published an essay entitled, “Imonga yo'l [The Path to Faith],” which sets out religious and philosophical ideas for how to live a faithful and morally sound existence in harmony with Islam.  His teachings resonated with many, and around 1993 he began leading a religious study group in his Andijan home, though authorities repeatedly denied him registration as a religious organization.  As a result, the authorities briefly jailed him and 40 of his followers in 1995 for carrying out religious instruction without registration. SNB agents examined his essay but returned it without objections to the material. 

Yuldashev’s group, which included many local entrepreneurs, sparked the development of a grassroots business community in Andijan informed by Yuldashev’s philosophies in which spiritual and moral issues were said to take precedence over monetary concerns.  The group of businesses expanded rapidly, from 10 in 1993 to at least 40 separate companies by 2005, which included furniture factories, business supply companies, bakeries, tailoring firms, construction companies, and transportation firms that employed thousands of people in impoverished Andijan.  The businesses in the network were well-known for both their equitable treatment of workers—providing social services and a minimum wage nearly three times the official monthly sum—and their charitable giving, in which a fifth of their profits were donated to the community. By 1998 Yuldashev’s adherents had swelled to several thousand and could be found in Andijan, Osh, Kokand, and Tashkent. 

Throughout the mid-1990s, the SNB repeatedly interrogated Yuldashev and in April 1998, authorities arrested him after an unnamed man began a fight with him in the Andijan market. The police brought him to the police station and alleged that they found a small quantity of heroin in his pocket, which Yuldashev later claimed was planted. Authorities prosecuted him for narcotics possession and the Andijan City Court sentenced him to two and a half years in prison.  He was held in incommunicado detention for eight months until his release under a December 1998 amnesty and resumed his religious activities in Andijan.

On February 16, 1999, several bombs exploded in Tashkent, killing more than a dozen people and injuring many others. Authorities immediately assigned responsibility for the attacks to Islamic “extremists” and launched a wave of repression against independent Muslims, arresting thousands and subjecting them to torture, unfair trials, police raids, and threats against family members.  Police arrested Akram Yuldashev the day after the bombings. Authorities charged him with nine offenses, including terrorism (article 155), inciting national, racial, ethnic, or religious tension (article 156), threatening the constitutional order (article 159), sabotage (article 161), organization of banned civil groups and religious organizations (article 216), incitement of participation in illegal civil or religious groups (article 216(1)), organization of a criminal group (article 242), production or dissemination of materials threatening the public order (article 244(1)), and possession of narcotics for the purpose of sale (article 276).

During his trial, the prosecution argued that Yuldashev was a main organizer of the bombings.  Authorities also blamed members of the unrelated Erk political opposition movement and members of other independent Muslim groups for the same crime. The prosecution accused Yuldashev of being the leader of a group called Akromiya which it characterized as an extremist group with the express goal of overthrowing the government and establishing a worldwide Islamic caliphate.  Several scholars have written that the prosecution in Yuldashev’s 1999 case was the first mention of any religious organization called Akromiya.   Despite the SNB’s earlier review, the court ordered a new analysis of Yuldashev’s essay, “Path to Faith,” which determined it to be an extremist document. But the “expert analysis” cited text that did not appear in the actual essay.  According to Yuldashev’s wife, after a hearing that lasted no more than an hour and in which no witnesses presented evidence, the court sentenced Yuldashev to 17 years’ imprisonment in a high security facility.

After his conviction, prison authorities transferred Yuldashev repeatedly from one prison to another. He spent time in Jaslyk prison, where he was subjected to severe beatings with rubber truncheons.  By 2005 Yuldashev’s health had deteriorated gravely and he had spent two years in a prison hospital in Tashkent suffering from tuberculosis.

After his imprisonment, the business network Yuldashev established in Andijan continued to grow until June 23, 2004, when police arrested 23 businessmen from the group for allegedly organizing a criminal organization and threatening the constitutional order of Uzbekistan. Their arrest, trial, and subsequent liberation from prison by gunmen in Andijan precipitated mass demonstrations during which Uzbek government forces shot and killed hundreds of peaceful, mostly unarmed protesters on May 13, 2005.

In the aftermath of the massacre, authorities pinned responsibility on the already imprisoned Akram Yuldashev, who in a taped confession dated July 2005 reportedly admitted to inciting his followers to break the businessmen out of jail using a mobile phone.  Experts have written that his confession fits a pattern of statements extracted through torture and coercion and cast doubt on its authenticity.

Yuldashev’s son told Human Rights Watch in mid-2013 that his family has been denied all contact with him since 2009, has no information about his whereabouts, and did not even know whether he was alive or had died in custody. 

On January 11, Human Rights Watch learned that two government officials confirmed that Yuldashev died in prison of tuberculosis. No further details, including the whereabouts of his body or how it was buried, have been disclosed.