For the past decade, with increasing intensity, the government of Uzbekistan has persecuted independent Muslims. This campaign of religious persecution has resulted in the arrest, torture, public degradation, and incarceration in grossly inhumane conditions of an estimated 7,000 people.
The campaign targets nonviolent believers who preach or study Islam outside the official institutions and guidelines. They include independent imams and their followers, so-called Wahhabis—a term used incorrectly by the government to defame people as “fundamentalists.” The most numerous targets were adherents of the nonviolent group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), whose teachings in favor of an Islamic state the government finds seditious. In the early and mid-1990s, the government justified the repression of independent Islam as an effort to preserve secularism. Beginning in 1998 it referred to the need to prevent terrorism, and today the Uzbek government places the arrests firmly in the context of the global campaign against terrorism begun in response to the events of September 11, 2001.
Uzbekistan’s campaign against independent Islam is codified in legislation on religion and religious organizations and the country’s criminal code. State officials make public statements promoting the campaign and it is implemented by law enforcement agents, the judiciary, and local government officials.
International human rights law guarantees individuals the right to have and to express religion or beliefs. The Uzbek government’s policy and practices directly contravene these standards, as they punish certain religious believers for the content of their belief, for expressing their beliefs, exchanging information with others, or engaging in nonviolent association. In their treatment of independent Muslims, the Uzbek authorities’ systematic torture, ill-treatment, public degradation, and denial of due process also violate the country’s obligations under international law.
This report documents these violations. It explains how the state criminalized legitimate religious practice and belief and how it casts individuals’ exercise of their rights to freedom of conscience, expression, and association as attempts to overthrow the government. It details the ordeal independent Muslims have endured from their arrest through to their incarceration, in some cases serving up to twenty years. Most of the people whose stories are documented in this report remain incarcerated. They were tortured and suffered other forms of mistreatment by police trying to obtain confessions. They endured incommunicado detention, denial of defense counsel, denial of a fair trial, and convictions based on fabricated evidence. They continue to suffer torture and ill-treatment as they serve their sentences in Uzbek prisons. We also document the arrest, harassment, and intimidation of their families, including Soviet-style public denunciations that local officials stage against perceived Islamic “fundamentalists.”
The majority of independent Muslims arrested in the campaign and whose cases are treated in this report are men. In some cases women were direct targets of the government arrest campaign. In other cases women were subjected to extrajudicial punishment in the context of the campaign. Law enforcement agents have also harassed and pressured women family members of primary suspects in order to force them to reveal information about suspects or to compel detainees to incriminate themselves.
Finally, the report describes the obstacles independent Muslims face in seeking redress through state agencies, including the courts, the ombudsperson’s office, and the procuracy. It also recounts the harassment they sometimes face in retribution for appealing to international organizations.
Government officials have referred to the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent and the 1999 and 2000 armed incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to justify their intolerance of “Islamic extremism” generally and to cast the net of arrests ever wider in their attempts to eliminate any perceived threat to their power by observant Muslims. Governments have a responsibility to protect citizens from politically motivated violence and to cooperate internationally to bring to justice the perpetrators of such abuse. But despite the government’s assertion that these prosecutions are a response to terrorism, in the vast majority of cases we researched, those imprisoned were not charged with terrorism or even with committing any act of violence. The need to prevent terrorism cannot justify persecution of religious dissent, nor can it justify policies of collective punishment that lead to the arrest of suspects’ parents, siblings, and spouses. The torture and public shaming rituals that accompany arrests, the planting of drugs and bullets in people’s homes, and trials in which evidence that a person prayed five times a day is accepted as proof of intent to overthrow the state are equally indefensible and violate fundamental principles of due process.
Such practices are extremely effective methods of religious repression. They have had a devastating effect on independent Muslim communities. Despite requests from the diplomatic community, the government of Uzbekistan has not made public information regarding the number of people it has arrested and convicted on charges related to religious belief and practice.1 Only full disclosure by the government of Uzbekistan will reveal the actual number of independent Muslims arrested and imprisoned during the course of the campaign.
In August 1999 then-Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States of America, Sodyk Safaev (named the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2003), told Human Rights Watch that, “…Hundreds or maybe thousands of others have been arrested for [membership in] Hizb ut-Tahrir and underground activity.”2 Estimates in 2000 from local human rights activists who had followed the pattern of arrests since the beginning of the campaign put the number at between 6,500 and 7,000.3 These statistics fit with those released by the Uzbekistan branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which estimated in 2000 that some 4,000 of its members had been arrested. Since 2000, arrests and convictions of independent Muslims—members of Hizb ut-Tahrir mostly, but also people accused of “Wahhabism”—have continued apace and have outstripped the number of people returned to liberty following implementation of presidential amnesty decrees in 2001 and 2002.4 As of September 25, 2003, Human Rights Watch had analyzed and entered the cases of 1,229 independent Muslims into its database of religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. The cases of about 150 additional individuals convicted on charges related to religious activity, belief, or affiliation remained to be examined and entered into the database. Researchers from the Russian rights group Memorial have documented the cases of 1,967 independent Muslims.5
While the campaign was carried out by law enforcement agents nationwide, it appeared that the arrests of independent Muslims occurred on a most massive scale in the capital city Tashkent and certain cities in the Fergana Valley. The overwhelming majority of cases documented by Human Rights Watch and Memorial involved the arrest of people from these regions.6
As detailed in this report, the government’s actions were intended to eliminate a perceived threat of Islamic “fundamentalism” and “extremism” by silencing and punishing Muslims who rejected government control of religion. The policy was designed and carried out to remove charismatic Islam from the political equation, to prevent any potential contest between the Karimov government and independent-minded Muslim leaders for authority and the loyalty of the people. Fear of religion as a competitor for the hearts and minds of the people is part of the Soviet legacy, but the Karimov government made this project its own, incorporating inherited methods of control and instituting new tactics to prevent religious faith from ever challenging the government’s power.
Among the first targets of the government’s campaign were Muslim spiritual leaders who declined to limit their sermons and teachings to that which was dictated by state authorities. Other acts of “insubordination” varied from their opposition to the government’s ban on loudspeakers to call people to prayer, failure to praise President Karimov during religious services, and open discussion of the benefits of an Islamic state or the application of Islamic law, to their refusal to inform on congregation members and fellow religious leaders for security services. Government authorities inappropriately labeled these spiritual leaders “Wahabbis” and harassed or arrested people with close or only casual connection to them: members of their congregations, including those who had occasionally attended their services before their leaders fell out of favor, the imams’ students, mosque employees, and even their relatives.
In 1999 the Uzbek authorities began systematically arresting people for membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, the possession or distribution of the organization’s literature, or as with the imams, even casual affiliation with the group. Founded in the Middle East in the 1950s, Hizb ut-Tahrir appeared in Uzbekistan around 1995. At first the group maintained a low profile; it did not declare itself publicly, apply for government registration, or issue public statements. However, by 1998 its members had drawn the attention of the Uzbek government. The group was then increasing its numbers and openly distributing literature that it had not cleared through the state’s censorship agencies, such as the publishing house of the Muslim Spiritual Board (MSB), the government institution that regulates all Islamic affairs in Uzbekistan, and the Committee on Religious Affairs, a department of the Cabinet of Ministers.
Hizb ut-Tahrir has semi-autonomous branches in a number of countries, including in the Middle East, Europe, and Central Asia. The program and activities of these branches vary from country to country, as do government policies toward the organization. This report discusses state treatment of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan only. Because Hizb ut-Tahrir’s goals and ideas combine religion and politics, the group defies classification as an exclusively political or religious entity. In Uzbekistan, state authorities punish Hizb ut-Tahrir members specifically for their religious beliefs, expression, and activities.
For the purpose of this report, the term “independent Muslims” refers to Muslims who do not defer to government policy in their religious practices, expression, or beliefs. Those in danger of being cast as “fundamentalists” do not share an identical set of beliefs and practices. The Uzbek government judges all Muslims who express their religious beliefs in any way that is outside the parameters it has set as suspect. Independence in this context does not necessarily mean breaking with traditional religious practice nor does it presume that independent Muslims make an active decision to challenge the will of the state. Uzbekistan’s campaign against independent Islam has targeted Muslims who exhibited no objective independence from the state, but who were simply deemed “too pious” by state agents.
Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, like Muslims labeled “Wahhabi” by the state, are overwhelmingly self-defined Hanafi Sunnis, as are most Muslims in Uzbekistan, and not adherents of Wahabbism as it is understood in the Saudi Arabian context.7 Some so-called Wahhabis were thus labeled because they prayed five times a day—deemed by some local authorities in Uzbekistan’s provinces as evidence of excessive or suspicious piety—or overtly manifested their religious belief by growing a beard or wearing a headscarf that covered the face.
Human Rights Watch has maintained an office in Tashkent since 1996. Beginning in 1998, and then regularly from 1999 through 2001 as abuses mounted, Human Rights Watch interviewed some 200 independent Muslims who have been victims of arbitrary arrest and detention or are relatives of victims, as well as numerous other eyewitnesses, human rights defenders, defense attorneys, and government officials. Additional monitoring, including interviews of several former religious prisoners, was conducted in 2002 and 2003. Research for this book was conducted in all eleven districts of Tashkent city and other locations in Tashkent province, and during field missions to other provinces throughout Uzbekistan, including Jizzakh, Khorezm, Samarkand, Bukhara, Andijan, Fergana, Namangan, and Syrdaria as well as to the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.
To provide material for this report, Human Rights Watch researchers attended dozens of trials of independent Muslims and wrote verbatim transcripts of the proceedings, which are otherwise unavailable. We collected police, prosecutorial, and court documents pertaining to the cases of more than 800 independent Muslims. We also reviewed hundreds of supporting documents, including medical records, death certificates, letters of complaint written by victims and their relatives, appeals to government agencies and international organizations, written responses from government agencies, reports and analyses by foreign governments, international organizations, and human rights groups, local and international press reports, official government statements and speeches, and domestic laws and decrees.
To the Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan:
With a view to improving cooperation with the international community,
With a view to improving prison conditions,
In order to remedy discriminatory laws,
In order to remedy unjust convictions,
To provide for greater transparency,
To protect citizens from retaliation,
To protect citizens from illegal arrest and torture and to ensure that torturers are held accountable,
To ensure that local government is not an instrument of religious persecution,
To the Government of the United States:
To the OSCE:
To the European Union:
To the United Nations Commission on Human Rights:
To the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR):
State-run mosque in Tashkent. © 2003 Jason Eskenazi
1 A Ministry of Internal Affairs statement in 2000 claimed that, “there is no one convicted for political reasons in the republic’s correctional facilities” and gave a breakdown of the prison population by the criminal charges under which people were convicted. The statement said that of 63,900 persons serving prison sentences, 36.1 percent of the inmates were serving sentences for theft; 23.7 percent for “especially severe crimes” such as murder, rape, and assault; 11.7 percent for drug-related crimes; 6.2 percent for economic crimes, and 3.8 percent for “hooliganism and various other forms of illegal activity.” Another 10.4 percent of the prison population was convicted for disparate crimes, such as dissemination of pornography, criminal negligence, and illegal possession of weapons. Nowhere in the chart are figures given for the number of people convicted for “anti-constitutional activities,” distribution of religious literature, or other religion-related crimes. However, another 8.1 percent of prisoners (about 5,176 inmates) are categorized as “other,” which no doubt includes those imprisoned on religion-related charges. In addition, given government practices, some percentage of the almost 8,000 people imprisoned on drug-related charges or for illegal weapons possession were convicted on the basis of fabricated evidence and were in fact arrested and jailed for their independent religious activity. “On the Basis of Humanism: The Activities of the Penal System of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” Narodnoe Slovo (The People’s Word), 2000.
2 Human Rights Watch interview with Sodyk Safaev, New York, August 18, 1999.
3 By October 2001 the Russian rights group Memorial Human Rights Center and the Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia estimated by extrapolating from the data they had gathered and taking into account patterns of release, amnesty, and execution, that there were 8,000 political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan. Memorial Human Rights Center and the Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia, List of People Arrested and Tried in Uzbekistan for Political and Religious Reasons (December 1997-August 2001), Moscow, October 2001.
4 For more information regarding the conditions and results of the amnesty decrees, see Chapter V.
5 Memorial Human Rights Center and the Information Center for Human Rights in Central Asia, List of People Arrested and Tried in Uzbekistan for Political and Religious Reasons (December 1997-August 2001), Moscow, October 2001. This number is arrived at by taking the total number of cases involving independent Muslims documented by the group—2,297—and subtracting from that the number of such cases where the charge of terrorism was levied—330—to reach the number of cases involving independent Muslims not charged with violence that the group documented, i.e. 1,967. Spot-checks have revealed that some, but not all, of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch are also included in the pool of cases collected by Memorial.
6 These numbers reflect the government’s pattern of targeting people in specific regions. The Minister of Internal Affairs, Zokirjon Almatov, head of the agency responsible for carrying out many of the arrests, acknowledged this regional targeting. Speaking of “criminals” acting under the influence of “extremist religious groups” the minister said, “Investigations have shown that those who have committed crimes are mainly citizens who live in Tashkent, Andijan, and Namangan regions.” Uzbek Radio first programme, January 27, 2000, English translation in BBC Monitoring, January 27, 2000.
7 According to members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, most members of the group in Uzbekistan are Hanafi Sunnis. In other regions also, they point out, members’ identification with a given school of Sunnism reflects the general trend in the area. For instance, in Pakistan and the Middle East many of the members are Shafis. Human Rights Watch interview with Jalaluddin Patel, head of the leadership committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, London, June 29, 2002.