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20 May 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Total state control over Islamic faith

After a major investigation, Forum 18 News Service established that the Muslim clergy is almost completely under the control of the Uzbek authorities, while the leadership of the muftiate's spiritual administration is virtually an agency of state authority. Imams do not have the right to compose the Friday addresses themselves, but are obliged to read out texts approved by the muftiate. During the US-led war in Iraq, imams felt obliged to speak in support of the campaign, despite their own and popular opposition to it. In defiance of the law, the state appoints and removes imams. Students in Islamic colleges are closely monitored for their political reliability. Many mosques have been denied registration and Forum 18 has seen some being used, as in the Soviet period, as clubs, libraries or museums. Ironically, Islam is the faith in Uzbekistan that is most thoroughly controlled by the authorities.

9 May 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Namangan's Muslims appeal in vain for mosques

Muslims from the suburb of Rafik Mumin in the Fergana valley city of Namangan have complained to Forum 18 News Service that the authorities have repeatedly refused registration for the Donobad mosque which was closed down in 1998. Rejecting their latest application, the deputy leader of the city administration wrote to the Muslims at the end of March that it is "pointless" to register the mosque, because several mosques nearby are already functioning. "The authorities routinely give unofficial instructions to mahalla committee leaders to refuse registration to mosques," Gulyam Halmatov, chairman of the Namangan branch of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, told Forum 18.

2 May 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Muslim women prisoners "viciously insulted"

In an open letter to Interior Minister Zakir Almatov passed to Forum 18 News Service by the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, 22 Muslim women prisoners complain of maltreatment. "We are defenceless women who are barred from being amnestied and viciously insulted for practising our religion." They complain they are punished if they pray, have copies of the Koran confiscated if they are caught reading it, are not allowed to wear the Islamic veil, are cut off from their children and are singled out for punishment. "We call all of you, who're lucky enough to be free, to heed the situation of Muslim prisoners; to listen to the cry of the women imprisoned for their belief in Allah." Officials deny the women's accusations. "I know about the letter, we have investigated it and have concluded that the circumstances cited in it bear no relation to reality," Aziz Ernazarov of the interior ministry press office told Forum 18.

24 April 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Prosecutor "fed up" with Baptist appeals

In apparent testimony to the power of international protests, public prosecutor Shurali Ashurov, who questioned Baptist pastor Vladimir Khanyukov for up to five hours at a time and threatened his congregation for its refusal to register with the authorities, has called for an end to the flood of appeals that have reached his office. "I constantly receive protest letters from Baptists from various parts of the world," he told Forum 18 News Service from the western Uzbek town of Mubarek. "I am fed up with reading them." He revealed that in the wake of the petitions, a commission came from the capital Tashkent to investigate the Baptists' complaints. He insisted to Forum 18 that he is not preventing the church from meeting.

22 April 2003

CENTRAL ASIA: Only limited censorship of religious websites

Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.

8 April 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Five-year registration denial for Namangan mosque

Five years after it was closed by the authorities, Muslims in the Fergana valley city of Namangan have told Forum 18 News Service that their repeated attempts to register the Panjera mosque – where up to 500 people used to worship - have come to nothing. The day after a visit by OSCE officials in February, local officials warned the Muslims that "they could only meet with foreigners in the presence of the authorities". Local officials denied to Forum 18 that they knew anything about the repeated registration applications.

7 April 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Muslims fined for prayers in closed mosque

Six Muslims in the village of Katarzan in the Uzbek section of the Fergana valley, including the local imam, were fined after holding prayers at their closed mosque in February to mark the Muslim festival of Uraza Bairam (Feast of Sacrifice or Id al-Adha). Local Muslims, who preferred not to be named, told Forum 18 News Service that some 300 believers had gathered for prayers on 12 February at the Aman-Buak mosque – closed by the authorities five years ago - because they had not managed to get to the nearest registered mosque five kilometres (three miles) away. The judge told Forum 18 that he could not remember if he had fined the six. "I have a lot of things to do and I simply cannot remember everything."

27 March 2003

CENTRAL ASIA: Fergana Valley responds to Iraq war

A week-long investigation by Forum 18 News Service across the Fergana valley – the most devoutly Muslim region of Central Asia that straddles Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – has revealed widespread popular hostility to the US war on Iraq, which one local called "a war of civilisations". Yet there was no evidence that this hostility to the war – which enjoys the tacit support of the Uzbek government – will lead to new instability in the Fergana valley. "While the situation will quickly become strained in the rest of the Muslim world, here everything will stay virtually unchanged," a local Muslim leader told Forum 18 in the Kyrgyz town of Osh. Even members of the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir conceded that people are more concerned about surviving in the harsh economic climate than about their fellow-Muslims. "You must understand that our people are asleep," Uzbek Hizb ut-Tahrir members told Forum 18. "Even the co-operation between [Uzbek president]Islam Karimov and the US and the extermination of Iraqi Muslims have not awoken Uzbeks."

26 March 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Baptist women are latest secret police victims

A group of police officers and officers of the secret police, the National Security Service, raided an apartment on 28 February in the town of Khojali. A Baptist who asked not to be named told Forum 18 News Service that ten Baptist women of the local ethnicities, Kazakh and Karakalpak, had gathered in the apartment for a Christian meeting. They were insulted and held for 27 hours, although a local police officer denied this to Forum 18. "Nobody insulted them and there were no violations of the law by the police," he declared. This is the latest in a series of raids on Protestant Christians in Uzbekistan's western autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan.

19 March 2003

UZBEKISTAN: Long sentences for five Tashkent Muslims

Five Muslim men in their twenties and thirties have been sentenced in Tashkent to long periods of imprisonment on charges relating to what the authorities allege was their membership of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which aims to establish an Islamic state in Central Asia. The men maintained they were simply ordinary Muslims seeking to study their faith. "The accused did indeed know members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but they themselves were not engaged in political activity," Ismail Adylov of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan told Forum 18 News Service. "They were simply trying to gain a more profound knowledge of Islam." Thousands of Muslims are serving sentences in Uzbekistan on charges of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir or distributing its leaflets.

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