UZBEKISTAN: Russian religious news website blocked
One of the more prominent Russian-language religious news websites, Portal-credo.ru, is blocked in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Tests in the Uzbek capital Tashkent showed that the religious news website was inaccessible. Blocking is done at the instigation of the National Security Service (NSS) secret police. Internet service providers (ISPs) in Uzbekistan blame the blocking of sites on Uznet, owned by the state provider Uzbektelecom and through which all ISPs have to connect to the internet. Uznet insists that sites are already blocked by the NSS. "We don't block websites – this is done by the NSS secret police. The NSS open the connections for us – they have all the equipment there," an Uznet employee told Forum 18. Uzbekistan has long barred access to more websites than any other Central Asian country, including websites such as Centrasia.ru, Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net. All these websites carry some coverage of religious affairs.
"We didn't know our site was blocked in Uzbekistan," Aleksandr Soldatov, chief editor of Portal-credo.ru, told Forum 18 on 10 April. "It's quite possible that this has been done for political reasons – the government might view our site as dangerous."
Other internet companies in Uzbekistan blame the blocking of sites on Uznet, which is owned by the state provider Uzbektelecom and through which all other internet service providers (ISPs) in Uzbekistan have to connect to the internet. "We don't block any websites," a member of the technical department of the Tashkent-based ISP Sarkor-Telecom told Forum 18 on 9 April. "It's all done by Uznet. These sites are blocked for what they say are security reasons. Many political and religious sites are blocked - no-one can say how many."
However, the technical department at Uznet insisted that sites are already blocked before it has access to international connections. "We don't block websites – this is done by the NSS secret police. The NSS open the connections for us – they have all the equipment there," one Uznet employee told Forum 18 from Tashkent on 9 April. "You'd better ask them. We provide a reliable service allowing access to all sites that we have access to."
Forum 18 was unable to reach the press department of the NSS to find out why it is blocking access to foreign-based websites. The telephone went unanswered on 9 April. Nor was anyone available at the government's Committee for Religious Affairs. The man who answered the phone on 9 April told Forum 18 that committee specialist Begzot Kadyrov was away on a work trip and would not be back until 16 April and that no-one else was available.
Authoritarian Uzbekistan bars more websites than probably any other country in Central Asia. Among regional news websites blocked are
On 20 March
Meanwhile, on 1 February,
By contrast, the Moscow-based http://www.portal-credo.ru is solely devoted to religious news, carrying a wide variety of articles – almost entirely in Russian – about religious life and events around the world from a wide variety of sources. It often translates into Russian or summarises in Russian Forum 18's articles on religious freedom issues in the region. The site does not publish news in Uzbek or any other Central Asian language.
Portal-credo.ru's own statistics show the difficulties of access from Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia. Figures from a three-week period from late February to mid-March – posted on their site by their programmer, Mark Gondelman - show just 13 readers from Uzbekistan, fewer than from Kuwait, Denmark, Croatia or Turkey despite the many millions in Uzbekistan who read Russian. By contrast, the site had 167 visitors from neighbouring Kazakhstan and even 24 from Tajikistan, a much smaller and poorer country.
The Uzbek authorities have barred access since summer 2003 to the US-based Islamic radical site,
"This site contains the latest social and political developments in Uzbekistan and Central Asia, and their analysis, the facts about human rights violations and crimes that are committed against Muslims in the region," the site's owners claim. "It seeks to express the dreams and aspirations of the people who live under the dictatorship of the President Karimov. It succeeds in disclosing all the dodges of the enemies of God and challenges the people to fight against the tyranny. Most of all, it educates the people on the Islamic knowledge and tries to satisfy their spiritual needs."
Blocked for even longer has been
Although a growing number of religious communities within Uzbekistan have their own websites, low internet usage and tight political controls over it mean that such websites have failed to take on the important role in religious news and debate that they have in Russia or Kazakhstan.
With the government intent on preventing the internet developing into a mobilising force for the opposition, retaliation on those who visit banned websites can be severe. One source told Forum 18 that a year or so ago in his Tashkent mahalla (city district), a near neighbour tried to log on at home to an opposition website. Within fifteen minutes the NSS secret police had arrived at his home to warn him not to access such sites. Internet cafes have long displayed notices warning users not to access "religious or pornographic sites".
Sources who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18 that the NSS secret police also uses the internet to hunt for political activists and religious believers within Uzbekistan conducting activity it does not like. Sources told Forum 18 of a case several years ago when some South Koreans working for a non-governmental organisation in Uzbekistan had posted information about their religious activity while in the country on a Korean-language website. The NSS had discovered what had been published and took action against the individuals.
As well as controlling internet access, state control of all printed religious literature has in the past year been intensified (see F18News 29 June 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=805). Along with this, the state-run media's encouragement of intolerance against religious minorities has been stepped up (see F18News 19 December 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=890), as has a propaganda offensive to deny that Uzbekistan violates religious freedom (see F18News 19 December 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=891). (END)
For a personal commentary by a Muslim scholar, advocating religious freedom for all faiths as the best antidote to Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=338.
For more background, see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=777.
Full reports of the religious freedom situation in Uzbekistan can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=33.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806, and of religious intolerance in Central Asia is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=815.
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=uzbeki
27 March 2007
The written verdict on Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who has been sentenced to four years' imprisonment in an open work camp, gives a snapshot of how state control of Uzbekistan's religious communities operates. The verdict, seen by Forum 18 News Service, indicates how state agencies – hokimat (local administration), the mahalla (town district) committees, the police, public prosecutor's office, courts and expert witnesses - work together to control and suppress religious communities. In the case of Shestakov's Full Gospel congregation, the verdict also reveals official obsession over the ethnic affiliation and social background of those attending the church. One state agency not mentioned is the National Security Service (NSS) secret police, although it was heavily involved in the case from the start. The verdict especially highlights the key role of the committee of the mahalla, the urban district into which towns and cities are divided. Although ostensibly elected and self-governing, mahalla committees are in practice instruments of top-down control.
23 March 2007
Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov has appealed against the four-year sentence in one of Uzbekistan's open work camps imposed for his religious activity, Protestant sources have told Forum 18 News Service. The verdict stated that Pastor Shestakov had to be deprived of his freedom "given the absence of the possibility of re-educating him without isolation from society." No date has yet been set for an appeal hearing and Shestakov remains in Prison No. 1 in Andijan until the hearing. He has been banned from kneeling to pray and had his copy of the New Testament confiscated. He has been offered the Koran to read instead, Forum 18 has learnt. Although the state Religious Affairs Committee has frequently in state-run mass media attacked Pastor Shestakov and Protestants generally, Begzot Kadyrov of the Committee claimed to Forum 18 that "I have no information about the case." The verdict also claims it is "necessary" for 12 videotapes, seven CDs, two audiotapes and one copy of an Uzbek-language translation of a book "Jesus: More than a Prophet" to be destroyed. Two Protestants continue to await trial in north-west Uzbekistan.
9 March 2007
Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov has today (9 March) been sentenced to four years' exile in an open work camp within Uzbekistan for his religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Shestakov maintained his innocence throughout the trial. During his final speech, Forum 18 learnt, he told the court that despite the tears of his wife and children he forgives those who have taken action against him. Shestakov's friends have stated that there were numerous irregularities in the trial, including: an expert analysis of his sermons being illegally conducted by an Andijan University professor; forgery of documents by the Prosecutor's Office; false prosecution claims of religious services being conducted in a property not belonging to a registered religious organisation; and Pastor Shestakov being illegally charged under a Criminal Code article that was not in force when the criminal case against Shestakov was launched. Before the trial, Uzbek state-run media tried to smear Shestakov and his church.