The role of mahalla committees has increased significantly as they have been absorbed into the government, expanding from a traditional social structure to an administrative unit, tasked with control and surveillance of the population to assist in the implementation of current government policies.30
The first major responsibility the government conferred on the mahalla committees after 1991 was the distribution of small amounts of state funds for financial assistance to the needy.31
In 1999, the Mahalla Law assigned mahalla committees a broad range of responsibilities, including taking “measures aimed at the protection of women’s interests, enhancing their role in social life, molding the moral and spiritual atmosphere in the family, and the upbringing of the young generation.”32 Thus mahallas intervene in family conflicts, seek to prevent divorce, provide advice on parenting and proper behavior for women and children, and run education programs on AIDS, drugs, women’s health, family, and society.33 As the deputy chair of one mahalla committee told Human Rights Watch:
Particularly after the 1999 adoption of the Posbon Law, mahalla committees have been increasingly called upon to play a role in crime prevention. President Karimov, in his January 22, 2000 address to parliament, stressed the importance of strengthening this law enforcement role of thecommittees. “To ensure public order in the localities the role of self-governing bodies, first of all, that of the mahalla must be increased. It is important to encourage the efforts by the mahalla committees to detect reasons and circumstances conducive to committing crimes and other offenses in the environment where people live and to eliminate these.”35
At the time of the incursions into Uzbekistan by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 2000, President Karimov gave further instructions as to how mahalla committees were to work. “Local neighborhood committees should step up their activity to ensure public order, enhance people’s vigilance and their intelligent attitude towards events taking place around them. Their task and main duty should be to increase the vigilance of the population, the public, severalfold and to make the call ‘Let’s protect our home ourselves’ implemented in practice.”36
Article 12 of the Mahalla Law tasks mahalla committees to “take measures to stop the activity of non-registered religious organizations, to ensure observance of the rights of citizens for religious liberty, non-admission of forced spreading of religious views, to consider other issues related to the observance of the legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organizations.”37 Despite the use of rights language in this article, this provision violates the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion recognized in article 31 of the Uzbek Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Uzbekistan has been a party since 1995. In fulfillment of this requirement, mahalla committees are expected to participate in surveillance, arrests, and programs to ostracize pious Muslims, as detailed below.38
Mahalla committees are also responsible for preparing a list of candidates to be allowed to perform Hajj, the holy pilgrimage that Muslims believe is an obligation to be performed once in their life by those who are physically and financially able. The list from the mahalla committee is sent to the hokimiat and the responsibility for the final decision on eligibility rests with the government-run Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.39
Mahalla committees, on instruction from the hokimiat, try to control the religious activities of their populations through “prevention.” They run meetings with local police on religious extremism and other topics, warning attendees to not to practice their religion outside of state-sanctioned institutions. One mahalla committee representative recounted:
Mahalla committees now exercise governmental supervision over many fundamental aspects of Uzbek life. They are responsible for rehabilitating those discharged from penal institutions, as well as “to render educational influence on formerly convicted persons, and those who are inclined to commit transgressions of the law.”41
Mahalla committees are also required to assist various state bodies in carrying out their functions, including the parliament, all levels of hokimiat, law enforcement bodies, tax collection bodies, and the Ministry of Defense.42 They are also responsible for implementing control over trade and service enterprises.
Mahalla committees keep exhaustive statistics of dubious accuracy on their population, including the numbers of men, women, children, unemployed, single parents, disabled people, poor people, people with convictions, and those awaiting trial. They also track such categories as “gossips,” “drug users,” “scandalous families,” “alcoholics,” and “children who do not listen to their parents.” The mahalla committee passes these statistics to the hokimiat. As one mahalla committee deputy chair told Human Rights Watch, “[w]e know everyone in the mahalla. We see with our own eyes or neighbors tell us.”43
In the cities, Housing and Street Committee representatives, informally appointed for each block of flats or street of houses, provide information to the mahallas. They supply lists of people in their block of flats or street to the mahalla committee, including detailed information about residents’ personal and family lives. Mahalla committee representatives explained that they use this information to decide whom to invite to their seminars and holiday festivities, or who should receive food aid or small welfare presents.44 However, they also use this information to decide about taking intervention in family conflicts or reporting matters to the police.45
The adoption of the Posbon Law enhanced the role of the mahalla in surveillance and law enforcement. The posbon plays a key role in the collection of information to be passed to both the mahalla committee and the local police, both of which are responsible for overseeing its work.46 Posbons are also recruited to support police action.47
By law, a posbon must be someone whose “spiritual thought is pure and healthy” and who is “physically and morally healthy, pure, and pious….”48 The general meeting of the mahalla decides who is to be a posbon, however, they must take into account the opinion of the head of the local police.49 People within the mahalla area are obliged to aid the posbons in carrying out their duties.50 The posbon, therefore, provides a clear and legally formalized link between the law enforcement authorities and mahalla committees. Like the mahalla committees, the posbon’s role is broader than that of crime prevention, and includes maintaining the “social and moral environment” of the neighborhood.51 The actions of the posbon, in fulfilling this role, can in some cases breach the right to privacy. Among other things, the posbon must regularly inform the police about people who reside in the neighborhood without a residence permit, people who do not come home for long periods of time, and people not living in their houses.52 The posbon may interview people in relation to conflicts between citizens or criminal trials, or warn residents against undertaking illegal acts.53 The information collected by the posbon is recorded in a special book kept at the local police station.54
After the declaration of the “Year of the Mahalla,” the head of the Chief Authority for the Prevention of Infringements of the Law under the Ministry of Interior, Akhmadjon Usmanov, stated the government’s intention to create closer working relations between mahalla committee officials and law enforcement agencies. In particular, he announced a reform under way to house mahalla committees in the same buildings as “operational police centers,” staffed by police, including from the criminal investigation service and from the passport control service.55
29 Narodnoe Slovo, December 19, 2002.
30 Some argue that the government wanted to control the mahalla for two reasons—to be able to use the mahalla to control the population at the local level, but also to guard against the mahalla being used as an alternative power structure that could be used to coordinate dissent against the government. Human Rights Watch interview with unnamed member of the international community in Tashkent, June 28, 2002.
31 Mahalla committees are responsible for the distribution of benefits to low-income families with children under sixteen, to mothers who are not working and have children under two years old, and to poor families in need. August 23, 1994, Presidential Decree on “Measures to strengthen the social protection of poor families”; December 12, 1996, Presidential Decree on “Further increases in state support for families with children”; and January 13, 1999, Presidential Decree on “Increasing the role of self-governing organs in providing social assistance for the population.”
32 Mahalla committee members, when describing the role of the committee, highlighted its charitable and community strengthening role, such as organizing festivities for public holidays and giving food, money, and presents to the elderly or people in need. The following functions of mahalla committees are also included in Article 12 of the Law on Self-Government:
33 Human Rights Watch interview with “A.A.” (not her true initials), a mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001. Article 10 (c) of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by Uzbekistan in 1996, requires the elimination of any stereotyped concepts of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education.
34 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001. Each year the government issues booklets with a thematic program for mahalla committees to follow.
35 President Islam Karimov, Uzbek Television first channel, January 22, 2000, Tashkent, in Uzbek 0500 GMT, BBC Worldwide Monitoring (a service run by the British Broadcasting Corporation that monitors local media around the world and translates it into English).
36 President Islam Karimov, August 30, 2000, Uzbek radio first program, Tashkent, in Uzbek 0500 GMT, BBC Worldwide Monitoring.
37 The legislation referred to in article 12 of the Mahalla Law is the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, together with the criminal and administrative codes, which ban all religious activity and organizations not registered with the state, including private religious education and the distribution of literature deemed extremist, and sets out criminal penalties for leaders who fail to register their groups (Articles 9, 19, and 11). The law also forbids proselytizing and religious dress in public for non-clerics (Articles 5 and 14). The law is implemented to restrict the free manifestation of religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching, and as such contravenes article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
38 See below, Religious Persecution.
39 The government uses the Muslim Board to control the type of Islam that is legally available to the population. Under article 223 of the Criminal Code, illegally leaving the country, the government prosecutes people for going on Hajj without getting permission from the authorities. Human Rights Watch has documented several such cases. Human Rights Watch interview with “M.M,” Namangan, July 11, 2002. Human Rights Watch interview with “T.T.,” Namangan, July 11, 2002. M.M. and T.T. are not the individuals’ true initials.
40 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001.
41 Article 12, Mahalla Law.
42 Mahalla committees organized civil defense militias, which were known to still be operating in 2001. “Local security teams set up southern Uzbek militant-hit region,” Narodnoye slovo, January 10, 2001, BBC Worldwide Monitoring. In preparation for the January 27, 2002 referendum to extend President Karimov’s term by two years and to introduce a bicameral parliament, mahalla committees made lists of people eligible to vote. Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee chairman, Tashkent, January 3, 2002. The referendum did not provide a genuine opportunity for political participation, as the Karimov government allowed no opposition parties or independent media to function. See Human Rights Watch press release, New York, January 25, 2002.
43 Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001.
44 Human Rights Watch interview, with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001. Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee chair, Tashkent, January 3, 2002. Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, January 11, 2002.
45 Human Rights Watch interview, with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, December 26, 2001. Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee chair, Tashkent, January 3, 2002. Human Rights Watch interview with mahalla committee deputy chair, Tashkent, January 11, 2002. In some instances, this breaches the right to privacy, family and home and to freedom of conscience. See below, Means of Control: Surveillance.
46 Articles 24, 33, and 35 of the Posbon Law. Translation by Human Rights Watch.
47 This was the case in Namangan in 1999, when some 400 posbons reportedly joined police in arresting at least 400 people—ten of them alleged religious extremists. “Uzbek eastern region police catch ‘religious extremist sympathizers’”, Uzbek Radio first program, Tashkent, in Uzbek, 0500gmt, December 6, 1999, BBC Worldwide Monitoring.
48 Articles 3 and 6 of the Posbon Law.
49 Articles 6 and 8 of the Posbon Law.
50 Article 15 of the Posbon Law.
51 Article 11 of the Posbon Law.
52 Article 20 of the Posbon Law. In Uzbekistan, a residence permit system remains in place since Soviet times, making those without a permit for their current address liable to detention and other penalties. The permit system breaches the fundamental right to freedom of movement.
53 Article 22 of the Posbon Law.
54 Article 14 of the Posbon Law.
55 Narodnoe Slovo, December 19, 2002.