Uzbek President Islam Karimov has declared 2003 the “Year of the Mahalla.” The Uzbek media welcomed the declaration with warm words of praise for this traditional neighborhood institution, calling it “life’s mooring” and “the stronghold of calm.”1 Under President Karimov, the Uzbek government has converted the mahallacommittees from an autonomous expression of self-government to a national system for surveillance and control.
Uzbekistan is ruled by a repressive government with a poor human rights record. It censors the media, bans opposition political parties, and denies independence to social and religious movements. Now operating in every corner of Uzbek territory, mahalla committees are the government’s eyes and ears, and a key institution for implementing repressive policies and practices. This report documents the role mahalla committees have played in three critical areas of government abuse—the government’s six-year campaign against those who practice Islam beyond government-regulated institutions, its response to domestic violence, and a program in which people were forcibly displaced from their homes (the “forced resettlement program”) in 2000-2001.
The mahalla is a centuries-old autonomous institution organized around Islamic rituals and social events. After the Soviet period, mahallas began to be regulated by law. Additionally, they were given the authority to administer a range of activities within the mahalla territory. They are now organized as committees, with a chair who runs the day-to-day business with administrative support. Although under the law the mahalla committee’s activities are controlled through general neighborhood meetings, in practice administrative government authorities control their activities. They are now key government actors participating in repressing individuals and families whom the state deems suspect. They cooperate with law enforcement and other authorities to gather personal information on the population. In breach of the right to privacy, family, and home, they keep files on those considered suspicious by the government, including “scandalous families” with disobedient children, and pass this information onto the police and executive authorities.
Since late 1997, the Uzbek government has engaged in a broad crackdown on peaceful “independent” Muslims who practice Islam outside of the government channels. Legal Islam is strictly controlled in Uzbekistan. Islamic leaders are state appointed and controlled.2 Any form of religious practice not registered and approved by the state is considered illegal. The crackdown has effected those who pray at home, study the Koran in small groups, belong to Islamic organizations not registered with or approved by the state, and disseminate literature not sanctioned by the state. In violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion, the government branded them “extremists,” and has sentenced thousands of independent Muslims to long prison terms without connecting them to violent crime or armed groups. The mahalla committees support state-sanctioned Islam, choosing candidates to go on Hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. At the same time, the mahalla committees assist in the government-run crackdown, keeping files on those considered overly pious in their religious expression and carrying out other surveillance and reporting. They also organize and participate in public denunciations at which pious Muslims are abused, threatened, and demonized. These rallies inflict an insidious form of extrajudicial punishment on those who exercise their freedom of conscience outside of government-sanctioned institutions.
Although it is hard to estimate the scale of domestic violence in Uzbekistan because the government does not compile statistics and because women do not report violence by family members, it is clear that it is a serious problem. As a matter of state policy the government prioritizes keeping families together at all costs. Mahalla committees are key enforcers of this policy. Acting as de facto family courts, mahalla committees deny battered wives permission to divorce, sending them back to their husbands and the violence they face in their homes. Mahalla staff often judge battered women as being responsible for bringing on their husband’s abuse. After counseling them on spousal duties, reinforcing stereotyped concepts of the roles of men and women, mahalla committees return battered women to their homes. These policies fail to address the real harm–both physical and emotional—suffered by victims of domestic violence and knowingly place women in dangerous situations. They also violate international standards, which guarantee a woman’s equal treatment in the institution of marriage and in the dissolution of marriage. Policies designed to strengthen the family unit are not justified in breaching these norms and must take into account the state’s duty to protect women and children from violence.
Between August 2000 and March 2001, mahalla committees also perpetrated human rights abuses while implementing the Uzbek government’s forced resettlement programs in southern Uzbekistan that followed incursions by Islamic militants seeking to overthrow the government. Official reasons for the displacement were the security threat posed by the insurgents and the risk of natural disaster including landslides and floods. People were forced from their homes and relocated to resettlement villages where they were cut off from interaction with the general community and deprived of any means of livelihood. Mahalla committees joined the military and other authorities in coercive and violent tactics to force the displacement.
At the same time, some members of mahalla committees genuinely endeavor to support their population and refuse to discriminate against pious Muslims and others out of favor with the government. These people, however, find themselves under increasing pressure from government and law enforcement authorities to enforce government policies that violate human rights norms.
The Uzbek government and some international donor organizations argue that mahalla committees are independent and operate either as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or as decentralized self-government entities. Indeed, mahalla committees fulfill a wide variety of functions, some of which provide services and strengthen community and cultural life. However, they serve a critical function in enforcing the government’s policies of discrimination and persecution of disfavored groups within Uzbek society. However independent its members seek to be, the mahalla committee is an integral part of the repressive state structure. International development organizations, by unconditionally funding programs to support mahalla committees, run the danger of supporting a government system of control and abuse at the local level.
1 Narodnoe Slovo [People’s Word] newspaper, December 10, 2002, and December 19, 2002.
2 The authorities even write or vet the content of imam’s sermons. See, for example, “Uzbekistan: Total State Control Over Islamic Faith,” May 20, 2003, Forum 18 News Service, Oslo, Norway, http://www.forum18.org