- The Uzbek government is restricting religious freedom despite promises to eliminate restrictions.
- The Uzbekistan authorities still consider legitimate expression of religious sentiment or belief “extremism,” and peaceful religious communities and individuals are paying the price.
- Uzbek authorities should ensure that rights-violating provisions related to freedom of religion in the Criminal Code and in the 2021 religion law are amended in line with international human rights law.
(Berlin, May 24, 2023) – The Uzbek government is restricting religious freedom despite promises to eliminate restrictions, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is preventing registration of religious communities, subjecting former religious prisoners to arbitrary controls, and prosecuting Muslims on overly broad and vaguely worded extremism-related charges.
A 2021 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations retains restrictive and rights-violating provisions. And the authorities are prosecuting people under overbroad religious extremism-related provisions in Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, while ignoring allegations of abuse in custody.
“President Shavkat Mirziyoyev received credit early on for initiating reforms granting more religious freedoms in Uzbekistan, but what we’re seeing today is a mixed record, in which serious abuses occur with impunity,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbekistan authorities still consider legitimate expression of religious sentiment or belief ‘extremism,’ and peaceful religious communities and individuals are paying the price.”
The Mirziyoyev government put an end to the routine mass arrests of Muslims – common under the late President Islam Karimov – released hundreds of people imprisoned for their peaceful religious activities or beliefs, and reported that thousands of citizens were removed from security service “blacklists.’’ Yet, the Uzbek government still appears to view religion as a threat and, as a result, imposes undue restrictions on peaceful religious communities and people.
Sergey Artyushev, a Tashkent-based Jehovah’s Witness representative, told Human Rights Watch: “The main problem is that the [Uzbek] government treats freedom of religion as a privilege, not a right.” Muslim activists noted that while “religion is formally separated from the government,” state officials heavily control religious practice through both the Muftiyat, the Muslim spiritual board, and the State Committee on Religious Affairs, a government body that oversees religious practice in Uzbekistan.
Between March 6 and 10, 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 human rights defenders, bloggers, lawyers, and victims of religious freedom violations in Tashkent and Fergana regions in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch also reviewed court material in nine cases, as well as media reports on religion-related criminal cases. Additional interviews had been carried out remotely between November 2021 and August 2022.
In late April, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Uzbek government to share its preliminary findings and request information about restrictions on religious freedom in Uzbekistan. In a written response, the Uzbek government did not acknowledge any restrictions and claimed that the “legal framework [in Uzbekistan] fully meets international standards and ensures the rights of everyone to freedom of conscience and religion.”
Human Rights Watch documented seven cases in which Uzbek authorities in the last three years brought criminal charges against people for storing or sharing content containing “religious extremist” ideas, in violation of their right to freedom of religion or belief and expression. In a recent case, a Tashkent court sentenced a 20-year-old economics student to three years in prison for downloading a religious song authorities had deemed “extremist,” and sharing it with some classmates in a Telegram chat.
Human Rights Watch also documented several cases in which Muslims who had fled Uzbekistan under President Karimov fearing religious persecution were arrested and prosecuted when they returned on religious extremism-related criminal charges. In some cases, the people interviewed said the police had given them or their loved ones assurances that they would not be prosecuted or imprisoned upon their return.
Despite many recommendations from the United Nations and other international bodies that the government should amend its overbroad and vague definition of “extremism,” Uzbek law does not distinguish between violent and nonviolent extremism. Extremism-related provisions in the criminal code are used against people solely for their peaceful religious activity or expression. This may violate international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of religion, expression, and association, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also documented several cases in which police allegedly ill-treated and tortured people who were being held on religious extremist-related offenses. The authorities have failed to investigate or hold the abusers accountable.
Several people expressed concern about requirements to register religious groups. Although the registration process was simplified in the 2021 religion law, the government continues to impose undue obstacles and interfere with registration efforts, people interviewed said. Jehovah’s Witnesses have made multiple attempts to register in Tashkent and Samarkand since 2021, all unsuccessfully. A human rights activist in the Fergana region estimated that about 10 people who were struggling to register mosques in their neighborhoods had come to him for advice.
Two men formerly imprisoned on religion-related charges said that years after they had served their prison sentences in full, courts had imposed temporary administrative oversight limiting their movement and requiring them to regularly check in with the police. The arbitrary restrictions violated their rights to liberty and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said.
Uzbekistan’s international partners should urge Uzbekistan, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief. Human Rights Watch echoes the recommendation of the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom in its 2023 annual report to reinstate Uzbekistan on the United States’ State Department’s Special Watch List.
Uzbek authorities should ensure that rights-violating provisions related to freedom of religion in the Criminal Code and in the 2021 religion law are amended in line with international human rights law. The government should ensure that Muslims are able peacefully to express their religious views, including by storing and sharing religious materials even if these are deemed radical by the authorities. The authorities should drop all criminal charges and take steps to quash convictions in cases involving the storage of materials deemed “extremist” that do not involve use, or intent to use, such material to incite or commit violent acts.
Uzbek authorities should review the practice of imposing administrative oversight on former religious prisoners, with a view to ending such arbitrary restrictions, and ensure that religious communities are able to register without undue government interference.
“It’s clear that Uzbek authorities need to do much more to ensure that freedom of religion is fully respected and upheld in Uzbekistan,” Rittmann said. “Uzbekistan’s partners should urge the Uzbek government to renew stalled reform efforts and stop all harassment and persecution of peaceful religious communities and people.”
For detailed findings on religion-related human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, please see below.
In some cases, people interviewed are identified by a pseudonym or are not quoted by name for their protection.
2021 Religion Law
In early July 2021, Uzbekistan adopted a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations. The law addressed some of the limits on freedom of religion and belief that had existed in the 1998 religion law it replaced, but retained several provisions contrary to international human rights law. Before its adoption, experts including members of the Venice Commission and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief had urged Uzbek officials to amend the draft religion law to bring it into full compliance with international standards.
In a joint communication to President Mirziyoyev on July 29, 2021, five UN special rapporteurs expressed serious concern about the rights-violating provisions that remain in the new law, including bans on all forms of peaceful missionary activity; on the manufacture, import, and distribution of non-state-approved religious material; and on non-state-approved religious education. The rapporteurs also noted that “the registration process [for religious groups] remains onerous and needlessly prohibitive,” and urged the government to “maintain a definition of extremism and terrorism consistent with the core legal meanings.”
In answer to Human Rights Watch’s question about what steps the government is taking to ensure the law meets international standards, the Uzbek government stated: “The legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan fully complies with international standards for ensuring the protection of human rights, including … the Law of the Republic of Uzbekistan ‘On freedom of conscience and religious organizations.’”
Prosecution for Storage, Dissemination of Banned Religious Material
While large-scale arrests of Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls stopped after President Mirziyoyev came to power in 2016, the authorities appear to be increasingly targeting Muslims under article 244-1, part 3, of the criminal code for storing or sharing “materials threatening public safety and public order,” including materials containing “religious extremist” content, such as songs or “nasheeds,”a type of Islamic religious song, on social media networks or their phones. Uzbek authorities declined to tell Human Rights Watch how many people had been prosecuted between 2017 and 2023 on this charge.
International human rights bodies, including the UN Human Rights Committee, have expressed concern that these provisions are overly broad and vaguely worded, and urged the Uzbek government to “review and revise all provisions relating to freedom of religion or belief” and to narrow the definition of “extremism,” to ensure they comply with international human rights standards. In its written communication to Human Rights Watch, the authorities said that “the concept of extremism and extremist activity … fully meet the requirements of international standards.”
Human Rights Watch documented seven cases over the past three years in which people were sentenced to between three years of restricted freedom and five years in prison for storing or sharing “religious extremist” content in Tashkent, Namangan, and Andijan. Human rights activists and bloggers said that they are aware of many more such cases.
In at least two of the cases, the police apparently gained access to and searched through the person’s phone without authorization, a violation of Uzbek law. Courts also appear to have ignored whether there was any evidence of criminal intent or incitement to violence, instead convicting defendants solely for storing or sharing religious material deemed “extremist.” The UN special rapporteur for countering terrorism expressed concern in February 2022 about how “article 244 criminalizes, de facto, the mere fact of keeping materials considered to be radical, thereby impinging on the fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of thought.”
On May 8, 2023, a Tashkent court sentenced Zhahongir Ulugmurodov, a 20-year-old economics student, to three years in prison for downloading and sharing a religious song with some classmates in Telegram, a messaging app. The State Committee on Religious Affairs concluded that the song “is filled with fundamentalist ideas.” Neither Ulugmurodov, nor the text in question, which Human Rights Watch has on file, calls for violence. Ulugmurodov’s family told the media they plan to appeal the verdict.
On January 30, 2023, a Tashkent court sentenced Sardor Rakhmonkulov, 22, an IT university student, to five years in prison after police found he had downloaded and shared a banned religious song with a friend on Telegram. Abdurakhmon Tashanov, head of the human rights organization Ezgulik and Rakhmonkulov’s public defender, told Human Rights Watch that there was no criminal intent in Rakhmonkulov’s actions: “[Rakhmankulov] doesn’t understand Arabic. It was just music and he shared it with a friend. Not because he understood the essence of it.”
On appeal, a verdict that Human Rights Watch also has on file, the court considered Rakhmonkulov’s time in pretrial detention to be time served, reduced his five-year prison sentence to four years, four months, and twenty-one days, and suspended his sentence with two years of probation. However, the court upheld the ruling to block his social media accounts and destroy his phone.
In mid-February 2023, another Tashkent court sentenced “Abror A,” 25, to three years of restricted freedom for sharing a religious song in a group chat. A human rights activist familiar with the case told Human Rights Watch that Abror had “heard some religious song, shared it with his family, and then forgot about it.” The guilty verdict, a copy of which Human Rights Watch has on file, was based on the conclusions of the State Committee on Religious Affairs that “the material in the seized file is impregnated with fundamentalist ideas.”
In the case of Oybek Khamidov, 34, a former religious prisoner from Andijan who was accused of “spreading materials with fundamentalist ideas” for sending unauthorized religious material to his wife on social media, an Andijan court on May 17, 2022, sentenced him to five years in prison. Khamidov denied the charges.
After “Solikha S” wrote several posts on social media complaining about socioeconomic issues in her Tashkent neighborhood, police detained her and confiscated her phone. Police questioned her for several hours, including about when she started wearing a headscarf and how often she prayed. Ultimately, the police let her go, but they “made me leave my phone at the police station,” she said.
In January 2023, a Tashkent court sentenced her to 5 years of restricted freedom under article 244-1, part 3, for posting banned religious content on her social media account several years earlier. “There was no information then that the information [I posted] was banned,” she said. “Nobody told us that it wasn’t allowed.”
The Uzbek government informed Human Rights Watch that it carries out “extensive explanatory measures … among the population” and “systematically” publishes lists on the Supreme Court and Justice Ministry websites to inform the public what constitutes prohibited extremist material, but did not provide additional details.
Allegations of Ill-Treatment and Torture
Torture and ill-treatment of detainees is a serious problem in Uzbekistan, and often occurs with impunity. In several cases Human Rights Watch investigated, people detained in recent years on religious extremism-related charges alleged that police had beaten or otherwise mistreated or tortured them, and that the abusers were not held accountable. The government said in its written communication to Human Rights Watch that video surveillance cameras have been installed in pretrial detention centers to prevent torture but acknowledged that no one had been convicted for torture in 2022.
Police detained “Odil O.” 45, in January 2017 on charges of illegal border crossing, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, and sharing of “religious extremist” material. A Tashkent court convicted him and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Describing his ordeal when first detained, he said:
For over 10 hours, police beat me to give testimony against people I did not know…. Police threatened to rape my wife and to kill my children. … [The police] beat me up, they beat my heels 40 times with batons.
He said that the police had tortured him on multiple occasions during his time in detention and escalated their abuse after he refused to confess:
[The police] put out a rubber mattress which had electrified wires and water all over it. I had to walk barefoot on that mattress. I felt anguish in my whole body, my teeth, eyes, fingers. After about 15 minutes, I passed out. A white substance came out of my mouth.
While he was in pretrial detention, police physically and psychologically abused Fazilhoja Arifhojaev, a Muslim blogger sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in January 2022 for threatening public security, said his lawyer, Sergey Mayorov. He said that in late September 2021, police handcuffed Arifhojaev to a pipe and made him sit in a stress position for nearly 12 hours, causing him excruciating pain, a form of torture.
The mother of Rakhmonkulov, the IT student who was convicted for sharing a religious song, Saida Saidalieva, said that he had been tortured while in pretrial detention. In an interview with the BBC, Saidalieva said what her son had told her, that the police had tried to coerce a confession from him:
After three days in a cell, [Sardor] was brought to the Tashkent GUVD [city internal affairs department, ed. BBC]. … They [the police] put a plastic bag on his head and held him until he couldn’t breathe…. Four employees without uniforms kicked him one after another.
Rakhmankulov’s public defender, Abdurakhmon Tashanov, told Human Rights Watch: “Sardor’s lawyer filed a complaint during the trial [alleging torture], but the court didn’t react. When it comes to torture, [authorities] claim they’re investigating, but by the time a trial is over, they’re not working on it anymore.”
Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon and a devout Muslim from Nukus, Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in Uzbekistan, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in May 2022 on multiple religious extremism-related charges, was also reportedly abused by police in pretrial detention. According to the religious freedom watchdog Forum18, a police officer beat Sultonov and hit him in the stomach, arms, and legs. The Tashkent-based human rights defender Elena Urlaeva, who was at Sultonov’s trial in Nukus, told Forum18 that the judge ignored Sultanov’s allegations of torture.
A female relative of “Sherzod S.” a man in his thirties who was convicted in the Ferghana region in 2018 on religious extremism and terrorism-related charges, said that after police detained him at their home, he was held incommunicado for three days: “No one knew where he was. My family searched for him, reached out to the prosecutor’s office. For three days no one would tell us where he was.” The female relative said that Sherzod’s co-defendant testified at trial that police had beaten of them and administered electric shocks.
Prosecution of Muslims on Extremism-Related Charges
Uzbekistan authorities no longer carry out routine mass arrests of Muslims on vague and overbroad anti-state and religious extremist charges, in which authorities often characterized individuals’ peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of conscience, expression, and association as attempts to overthrow the government. Yet as recently as this year, the government has pursued Uzbek Muslims living abroad on such charges.
In the last two-and-a-half years, Uzbek authorities have prosecuted on religious extremism-related charges at least four people who had previously fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan but later returned. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that Uzbek police or security services contacted some Uzbek Muslims living abroad and encouraged them to return to Uzbekistan, and in some cases, reportedly assured them verbally that they would not be prosecuted or imprisoned, only to arrest them upon their return.
On June 22, 2022, police detained Alijon Mirganiev, a 52-year-old Muslim, at the Tashkent airport upon his return to Uzbekistan. Mirganiev had previously served five-and-a-half years in prison on religion-related charges and was released in 2012. Mirganiev fled Uzbekistan in 2013, fearing rearrest.
“[The authorities] wanted to imprison him again,” Mirganiev’s brother told Human Rights Watch. “They even carried out a search of his home [in 2013]. He was sick of it. His wife was working in Turkey [at the time] – so he left.”
Police who contacted Mirganiev before his return to Uzbekistan told him that he would not be prosecuted. They wanted only to speak to him, his brother said. Instead, when he arrived, the police detained Mirganiev and later charged him with illegal border crossing involving minors – his children – and participating in a religious extremist organization under articles 127-3, 223-2b, and 244-2, part 1 of the criminal code. His trial began in September 2022.
His brother said:
The investigator in the anti-terrorism department came to the airport to meet [Mirganiev] and took him to the police station. They told me he would be held in Tashturma [Tashkent prison] for three days. They promised that he would be questioned and then released. But once they detained him, they didn’t release him again.
His brother said that, at the trial, prosecutors did not present any material evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and witnesses who had earlier claimed they saw Mirganiev in Syria recanted their testimony. He said Mirganiev and his lawyer also provided official documentation from the Turkish authorities that he did not cross the Turkey-Syria border. Nevertheless, on October 18, 2022, a Tashkent court sentenced Mirganiev to seven years in a strict regime prison. In March 2023, an appeals court reduced his prison sentence by six months.
On June 23, 2022, a Bukhara region court convicted Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov, a 48-year-old Muslim who follows the teachings of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi and who had fled Uzbekistan in 2010, to five years and one month in prison on extremism-related charges under articles 244-1 and 244-2 of the criminal code.
In February 2022, after Russian authorities refused to allow Tukhtamurodov to remain in Russia, where he had been living, Tukhtamurodov contacted Uzbek authorities, who apparently assured him that he would not be arrested if he returned to Uzbekistan, people familiar with the case told Forum18, the religious freedom watchdog. They said that “he was arrested when he arrived in Tashkent International airport on April 11, 2022, and immediately transferred to a Bukhara prison.”
Registration Obstacles for Religious Communities
The 2021 religion law revised registration procedures for religious groups, ostensibly making it easier to fulfill registration requirements. The number of people required to register a religious group was reduced from 100 to 50, and the neighborhood committee no longer has to approve registration. According to the Uzbek government, the Justice Ministry has registered 34 religious groups in the last 2 years, including a Shia mosque in Bukhara and four Christian churches. However, people interviewed said that the registration process remains burdensome and lengthy, and in some cases, the authorities continue to impose arbitrary registration requirements.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have made many attempts over the years to register their communities in Uzbekistan. Buoyed by comments by the then-Uzbek ambassador to the United States, who said in May 2018, “Smaller religious denominations, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, from now on, will be able to get registered much easier,” and by the adoption of the 2021 religion law, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tashkent and Samarkand have since 2021 repeatedly tried to register, to no avail.
“If they didn’t register us before because the neighborhood committee could say they were opposed to it, now authorities are demanding documentation from the Fire Department, Department of Sanitation, and Department of Architecture,” said Sergey Artyushev, a Jehovah’s Witness’s representative in Uzbekistan. “We need sign off from the city administration now.”
Five human rights defenders and bloggers in the Ferghana and Tashkent regions similarly identified mosque registration as a key religious freedom issue in Uzbekistan.
Sharifakhon Madrahimova, a journalist in the Fergana Region, said that she knows of two neighborhood mosque groups that have been trying unsuccessfully for years to register. “In order to register [a mosque], you need permission from the regional governor. But he’s not giving permission,” she said about one of the mosques in the Buvaida district, Fergana.
Ahmadjon Madumarov, the rights defender from Margilon, said in March 2023 that he has struggled for over a year to get approval from local authorities to register his neighborhood mosque, called Boi Makhalla. In early May, the regional governor received Madumarov and apparently instructed his staff to approve the necessary documents for the mosque’s registration. But Madumarov is still waiting for registration.
Abdusalom Ergashev, a veteran human rights defender from Fergana City, said:
After President Mirziyoyev came to power, it became clear that they were fighting to improve the country’s image. They lightened punishments [of Muslims], and many [religious prisoners] were released. … But as far as registration is concerned, there hasn’t been any improvement whatsoever. Many of the mahalla mosques are without registration. That’s the situation across the country. … I personally know at least 10 people who are struggling to register mosques in their neighborhoods, who have come to me for advice.
Administrative Supervision of Former Religious Prisoners
Article 8 of the 2019 Law on Administrative Supervision provides that former prisoners, convicted of crimes qualified in Uzbek law as “grave or especially grave,” and who, after having fully served their sentence and being released from prison, commit two or more administrative offenses within a one-year period, may be put under state supervision from six months to one year. The authorities appear to impose administrative supervision frequently in cases related to “religious extremism,” which may constitute a violation of former prisoners’ rights to liberty and freedom of movement.
“Over 70 percent of former religious prisoners are subjected to administrative supervision,” estimated Akhmadjon Madumarov, a veteran human rights defender from Margilan. “Local authorities write them up for crossing the street in the wrong place, parking their car in a no-parking zone, or violating traffic rules. But that’s just pretext.”
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed one former religious prisoner whose name is withheld who spent several years under administrative supervision after his release from prison in late 2016. “There were talks that they would impose restrictions again, in 2020, so I went to ask the police not to do that,” he said. “I talked to the senior neighborhood police officer, but he just said ‘it’s necessary, it’s necessary and that’s it.’ They didn’t provide any more explanation than that.”
Another former religious prisoner living in Tashkent whose name is also withheld said that he was not subject to any restrictions after his release from prison in 2020. However, in mid-2022, after he was fined on two separate occasions for minor traffic violations, a court imposed administrative supervision on him for six months. “The neighborhood police officer threatened me, saying if I commit any more traffic violations, there’s no guarantee they won’t put me [back] in jail,” he said.
Restrictions on Muslim Dress
The 2021 religion law lifted the ban on women wearing the hijab in public places, and there is no law prohibiting men from wearing a beard in Uzbekistan. Yet, media and local rights groups have reported multiple incidents in recent years of police forcing men to shave off their beards. Uzbek authorities have denied accusations that they forced men to shave.
“Alisher A.” a pious Muslim whose brother is serving a religion-related prison sentence, told Human Rights Watch that police searched his home in November 2021. At the police station, officers searched through his phone and forced him to shave off his beard, threatening to register his name with police for regular check ins if he refused.
In May 2022, several Muslim men in Tashkent reported to the media that police had threatened them with 15-day administrative arrest unless they shaved their beards.