(Berlin, June 14, 2023) – Uzbek authorities should ensure a fair appeals process for a student sentenced to three years in prison for sharing a link to an Islamic devotional song, Human Rights Watch said today.
The case against Jahongir Ulugmurodov, a 20-year-old student studying economics in a Tashkent university, violates his right to freedom of religion or belief. It is among a growing number of prosecutions of people in Uzbekistan for sharing content deemed “extremist” by the authorities. A Tashkent court is due to hear Ulugmurodov’s appeal on June 14, 2023.
“Imprisoning Ulugmurodov and others for sharing so-called ‘extremist’ material with no evidence that they used or intended to use it to incite violence, is gross overreach,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should protect Ulugmurodov’s freedom of speech and religion and take steps to quash such convictions.”
On May 8, a Tashkent court convicted Ulugmurodov on charges of “sharing materials threatening public safety and public order” after he sent a YouTube link to a nasheed, vocal music that generally refers to Islamic beliefs, to friends on the Telegram social media app. The court sentenced Ulugmurodov to three years in prison and ordered the destruction of his phone. The State Committee on Religious Affairs concluded that the song “is filled with fundamentalist ideas,” but the text of the song as analyzed by the State Committee, which Human Rights Watch has seen, does not constitute imminent incitement to violence.
The Tashkent Regional Police Department additionally claimed in a statement issued May 10 that Ulugmurodov had shared sermons on the internet about “jihad” and “calling for becoming a shaheed [a martyr]” among his acquaintances and relatives “in order to increase the number of supporters” of an “international terrorist organization.” However, the police did not provide any concrete information about the alleged sermons, nor did Human Rights Watch find any mention of religious content other than the one nasheed in court documents. While the nasheed in question includes the phrase “it suits us to become shaheeds,” it does not amount to incitement to violence, Human Rights Watch said.
Kun.uz, a local media outlet that analyzed the police statement against the indictment and the verdict, found that the police statement contains “misrepresentations and defamations that do not correspond to the court documents.”
Ulugmurodov’s case is one of several in which Uzbek authorities have recently prosecuted Muslims for storing or sharing materials containing what they call “religious extremist” ideas. In May, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting seven cases, including Ulugmurodov’s, over the past three years in which people were sentenced to between three years of noncustodial restricted freedom and five years in prison for storing or sharing “religious extremist” content in Tashkent, Namangan, and Andijan. In interviews, human rights activists and bloggers said that they are aware of many more such cases.
Olimjon Haydarov, a Muslim activist and blogger who reports on such cases, told Human Rights Watch that authorities seem to be targeting young Muslim men for sharing religious content online under article 244-1, part 3, of the criminal code, in most cases with no evidence that the accused used or intended to use the material to commit or incite violence. On May 22, the court in the Uzbek city of Jizzakh sentenced a 19-year-old to three years of noncustodial restricted freedom on similar charges.
International human rights bodies, including the UN Special Rapporteur for countering terrorism, have expressed concern that Uzbek law does not distinguish between violent and nonviolent extremism and that “extremism” charges are used against people solely for their peaceful religious activity or expression. The UN Human Rights Committee in April 2020 urged the Uzbek government to guarantee freedom of religion or belief and to narrow the overly broad and vague definition of “extremism” to ensure that such provisions comply with international human rights standards. Five UN special rapporteurs in a joint communication to President Shavkat Mirzioyev on July 29, 2021 expressed concern about rights-violating provisions in Uzbekistan’s then-newly adopted religion law and urged the government to “maintain a definition of extremism and terrorism consistent with the core legal meanings.”
The Uzbek government should ensure that Muslims can peacefully hold and express their religious views, including by storing and sharing religious materials even if the authorities deem the materials objectionable, Human Rights Watch said.
Uzbekistan’s international partners, including the European Union and the United States, should urge the Uzbek government to excise overly broad or vague definitions of extremism and order the review of cases in which Muslims, like Ulugmurodov, have been convicted for sharing or storing materials deemed “extremist” that do not involve use, or intent to use, such material to incite or commit violent acts.
“The Uzbek government has every right to tackle violent extremism, but to do so effectively, it should narrow the overbroad extremism-related provisions currently enshrined in Uzbek law,” Rittmann said. “Uzbekistan’s international partners should work with the government to bring legislation in accordance with international human rights standards so that Muslims and others are not jailed for peacefully practicing their faith.”