UZBEKISTAN: No proof, but imam sentenced
Astonishment and uproar greeted the six-year prison sentence imposed on 6 July on Alokhon Ishankhojayev, imam of the central mosque in Novy Margelan, a satellite town near Fergana in the Uzbek section of the Fergana valley. Those present in court began to shout that the imam had been found guilty simply for being a law-abiding Muslim, local human rights activist Akhmajon Madmarov told Forum 18 News Service. The court could present no proof of the charges that Ishankhojayev undermined the constitutional basis, set up a criminal organisation or led a banned organisation. The imam rejected accusations that a gun "found" by police in a search had been his. In the first case in Central Asia known to Forum 18 where the official Muslim clergy have supported individuals accused of Islamic radicalism, the chief imam of Fergana region spoke in court in Ishankhojayev's defence.
According to Madmarov, in the chaos that ensued once the sentence had been pronounced even the police officer guarding Ishankhojayev could not hold back his tears. Against orders he unlocked the iron cage in which the accused are held during a court case in Uzbekistan and allowed Ishankhojayev to say farewell to his mother. Those present in court began to shout that the imam had been found guilty simply for being a law-abiding Muslim. Ishankhojayev's mother fainted and the judge had to call an ambulance.
A graduate of the Tashkent medresseh, Ishankhojayev had been appointed imam of Novy Margelan's central mosque and was due to take up his post on 1 April. However, on 31 March officers of the secret police (the National Security Service or NSS) and the police came to his house with a search warrant. In the course of their search, the officers claimed to have discovered a gun and bullets and immediately arrested him. At court on 17 June, where Forum 18 was also present, Ishankhojayev declared that the weapon had been planted on him.
All the witnesses questioned categorically denied that Ishankhojayev had turned them against the constitutional order. One witness Isroja Muminov, who had earlier signed a statement that Ishankhojayev had turned him against the constitutional order, told the court on 17 June that he had been drunk when he was called into the NSS offices and signed the papers without even reading them. He testified that he did not even know Ishankhojayev (see F18News 29 June 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=351 ).
Also unclear is how Ishankhojayev could have set up a criminal organisation (as specified in Article 242) or have taken part in the activity of fundamentalist organisations (Article 244, part 2) when prosecutors could find no other members of this supposedly active organisation.
The material evidence that the prosecution argued demonstrated Ishankhojayev's extremist views – an anonymous manuscript found at his home during the search - is also intriguing. An expert analysis conducted by staff at the philosophy department of the Fergana Polytechnic Institute concluded that "the manuscript preaches Islamic radicalism and a return to the times of the caliphate". In support of their claim the experts cited the following quotation: "People's ailments stem from the fact that they have departed from Islam and are not striving for spiritual improvement." However, the manuscript appeared to be a standard work of Islamic theology and the court could produce no proof that Ishankhojayev had distributed it.
Madmarov pointed out that even the chief imam of Fergana region, Sobir hoja Eminov, appeared as a witness on Ishankhojayev's behalf. "Ishankhojayev has never been known to hold extremist views and he was awarded the post of imam-hatyb on my recommendation," Eminov told the court. He also said he believed the former imam-hatyb of Novy Margelan mosque had denounced Ishankhojayev to the law enforcement agencies, apparently accusing his successor of being a "Wahhabi" (a term widely used in Central Asia to denote Islamic fundamentalists). This is the first case in Central Asia known to Forum 18 where the official clergy have supported individuals accused of Islamic radicalism.
Madmarov also reported that the trial of a group of Muslims arrested by the police in Margelan was still under way in Fergana. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in various Uzbek cities at the end of March and beginning of April, the Margelan police arrested ten former members of the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir who had previously been released from prison under an amnesty (see F18News 13 April 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=298 ). Police claim that all those arrested had been found with a gun cartridge packed with drugs. Madmarov describes these similar finds as "absurd" and argues that this demonstrates that both the weapons and drugs were planted on the Muslims.
Moreover, Madmarov told Forum 18 that the wife of one of those arrested, Mukudas Yusupova, told the court that instead of a search warrant the police had mistakenly handed her a document showing the results of the search, even before it had been carried out.
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9 July 2004
Following similar threats in April and May to other Protestant students in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan in north-western Uzbekistan, three students of Karakalpak University were threatened with expulsion in June. The dean of their faculty, Dina Mamyrbayeva, said the secret police had written to her identifying them as members of a "banned Protestant sect". She warned the three that if they do not stop meeting their fellow Protestants they will be expelled. University rector Kuanyshbai Niyazov refused to confirm or deny the threats, though he told Forum 18 News Service that no students have yet been expelled. On 5 June police and secret police raided the home of another Nukus Protestant, Miyrasa Uralbayeva, warning that if she did not stop preaching Christianity she would have drugs planted on her and be put in prison for years.
8 July 2004
Six Jehovah's Witnesses have been arrested, having been denounced as "Wahhabis". They were interrogated by several policemen, the most senior of whom was apparently drunk. Of the six Jehovah's Witnesses, who included a 16 year old girl who should not have been held, the men were beaten up and the women and young girl had heavy psychological pressure applied against them, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Begzot Kadyrov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 that "The Jehovah's Witnesses are not registered in Bukhara region, and they remain active there despite all our warnings. As long as the Jehovah's Witnesses are not registered at the justice administration for Bukhara region, their conflicts with the police will continue." Jehovah's Witnesses have been denied registration in Uzbekistan. The state, in defiance of the human rights commitments it has freely entered into, routinely punishes unregistered religious activity.
7 July 2004
In the latest twist to Uzbek authorities' campaign against Christianity in north-west Uzbekistan, the NSS secret police have interrogated two Baptists, beating one up, and threatening both with imprisonment saying that "we will put you away for years". One secret police officer claimed to Forum 18 News Service that "The Baptists' activity is illegal, and so we simply had a chat with them," and that the Urgench Baptist church is a banned organisation "because its registered status was removed". Another NSS officer, Alisher Khasanov, jeered at Baptist Sharovat Allamova for being a Christian and claimed that "you Protestants rely on Western money, the humanitarian western missions who support you are basically espionage organisations. So you yourselves are agents for foreign intelligence services." Also, the local Khorezm branch of the NSS has questioned Forum 18 about why a Norwegian organisation is interested in a "banned organisation".