UZBEKISTAN: Punished for signing a failed registration application
On 1 June a court in the western town of Navoi found Jehovah's Witness Tatyana Briguntsova guilty of membership of an unregistered religious organisation, solely because she put herself down as a founding member of the community in a failed registration application some years ago. She told Forum 18 News Service that police had never recorded her as attending an unregistered meeting. As unregistered religious activity is illegal in Uzbekistan, in defiance of international agreements, this precedent means that any believer who signs a religious community's registration application that is then rejected could lay themselves open to punishment.
On 1 June, the Navoi town criminal court, presided over by Judge Rakhulo Khudoiberdiyeva, found Briguntsova guilty under Article 240 of the code of administrative offences, which punishes breaking the law on religious organisations. In passing sentence, the court took into account the fact that Briguntsova is a pensioner and a second-grade invalid, and so restricted itself to issuing a warning.
Uzbekistan's law on religion and Article 240 of the administrative code forbid the activity of unregistered religious organisations. Believers of a variety of faiths are often fined after police have found them attending a religious meeting or preaching in public, but this is the first time a citizen has been held to administrative account simply for their religious beliefs.
Judge Khudoiberdiyeva refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. "Briguntsova is a member of an unregistered religious organisation and that is against Uzbekistan's laws," she told Forum 18 on 10 June from Navoi. "I am not going to say anything more to you - I don't have time to talk to you."
"The most interesting thing is that the law enforcement agencies have not once recorded my presence at a religious meeting," Briguntsova told Forum 18 on 10 June from Navoi. "I can infer from this that the court realised I was a Jehovah's Witness because my name was on a list of founding members seeking registration of a Jehovah's Witness community which was submitted to the local justice ministry several years ago. We were refused registration, but evidently they decided to keep the list of Jehovah's Witnesses 'until better times'."
Briguntsova maintains that Judge Khudoiberdiyeva initially wanted to fine her ten times the minimum monthly wage, equivalent to 54,400 sums (367 Norwegian kroner, 44 Euros or 53 US dollars), but when she realised the accused was a pensioner and disabled, she decided to limit herself to a warning.
"Although Briguntsova was not fined, she has nevertheless been held to account under Uzbek law," Andrei Shirobokov, spokesperson for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, told Forum 18 on 10 June in the capital Tashkent. "This will effectively be a stain on her record for the rest of her life."
In addition to Briguntsova, three other Jehovah's Witnesses have been prosecuted under the administrative code in Navoi. Zukhra Khabirova, Azimjon Klichev and Nuriya Fakhriddinova were all fined after police found religious literature during searches. The court fined Khabirova and Klichev ten times the minimum monthly wage (equivalent to 54,400 sums) under Article 241 of the administrative code, which punishes "breaking the law on teaching religious doctrine", while Fakhriddinova was fined twice the minimum wage (10,800 sums) under Article 240. The average wage in Navoi is less than 30 US dollars per month, and to the three Jehovah's Witnesses the fines represent a large sum of money.
Shirobokov reports that the secret police, the National Security Service, have recently started to deploy a new tactic in their campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses. "My neighbours told me in strict confidence that not long ago some people from the NSS came to ask them about me and ended the conversation by telling them, as if in passing, that I was a member of a 'dreadful sect'." He said NSS officers made similar visits to the neighbours of other Jehovah's Witnesses.
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10 June 2004
Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan – which threatens to spread in Central Asia and elsewhere - is largely the result of government repression and lack of democracy, Azerbaijani scholar and translator of the Koran Nariman Gasimoglu, head of the Center for Religion and Democracy http://addm.az.iatp.net/ana.html in Baku and a former Georgetown University (USA) visiting scholar, argues in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Extremist Islamist groups, like the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which do not yet enjoy widespread support, have been strengthened by repression while moderate Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered. The best, if not the only way to counter religious extremism, Gasimoglu maintains, is to open up society to religious freedom for all, democracy, and free discussion – even including Islamist groups. This is the only way, he argues, of depriving Islamic extremism of support by revealing the reality of what extremism in power would mean.
9 June 2004
Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.
4 June 2004
Mass arrests of religious believers of all faiths, following the March/April terrorist bombs, have now virtually ceased, and Forum 18 News Service has been told by Protestants, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses that the authorities are now behaving "as badly as usual". However, over 100 people are still in custody in southern Uzbekistan, apparently for being "faithful Muslims" and several prominent Muslims appear to have been singled out by the authorities for repression in the crackdown.