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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.

UZBEKISTAN: Students to be expelled for belonging to "banned Protestant sect"?

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses arrested for being Islamic fundamentalists

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.

UZBEKISTAN: "Illegal" Baptists under more pressure as authorities try to stop Christianity

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".

UZBEKISTAN: Has imam been framed?

One day before he was due to take up his post as imam of a mosque in the town of Margelan, a satellite town near Fergana, young imam Alokhon Ishankhojayev was arrested after police and secret police officers claim to have discovered a gun and bullets during a house search. At his trial, which began on 17 June, five witnesses retracted earlier testimony that he had tried to turn them against the constitutional order. One admitted he was drunk that day and had signed a statement the secret police had drawn up without reading it. Ishankhojayev denied the charges. "I am a believer and have nothing to do with politics, let alone with terrorist activity," Forum 18 News Service heard him tell the court. Prosecutors are continuing the case.

UZBEKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses pledge to combat police beatings

Jehovah's Witnesses are to step up their attempts to end what they claim are regular police beatings of their members in Uzbekistan. In the latest incident, Tulkun Khankeldiyev and Oleg Zagibin were detained on 17 June for "illegal" street preaching in the town of Uchkuduk. Jehovah's Witnesses claim they were severely beaten at the police station before being fined. "The police acted very craftily. They beat our brothers so as to cause severe pain, but in such a way as to leave no bruises on their bodies," Jehovah's Witness spokesman Andrei Shirobokov told Forum 18 News Service. Uchkuduk's deputy police chief denied this absolutely, but insisted to Forum 18 the police were right to detain them.

UZBEKISTAN: Another Muslim "extremist" jailed

Khabibulo Khadmarov, a devout Muslim from the Fergana [Farghona] Valley, has been sentenced to six years in jail. The main accusation was that he was a member of Tabligh and that a manuscript found on him contained "extremist" sentiments. However, one human rights activist, Akhmajon Madmarov, described it to Forum 18 News Service as "a standard work of theology". The staff of the local university philosophy department, who analysed the manuscript, were described to Forum 18 by Madmarov as "the same as those who worked there in Soviet times. In other words, the people who are today acting as experts on Islam are the same as those who previously used to demonstrate the harmfulness and anti-scientific nature of religion." Tabligh members in Central Asia insist on their commitment to the group's original avowedly apolitical foundation.

UZBEKISTAN: Threats against lawyer's wife and young children

It is believed that the Uzbek authorities are behind anonymous night-time telephone calls and continuing threats being made against the wife and young children of Rustam Satdanov, a lawyer forced to flee Uzbekistan and seek political asylum in the USA for his work defending Jehovah's Witnesses. Satdanov received political asylum on 11 May. His wife, Asiya Satdanova, and their young children, who are still in Tashkent, told Forum 18 News Service that they are being anonymously threatened with "serious difficulties" if Satdanov does not return immediately to Uzbekistan. He himself told Forum 18 that if he returns the authorities would, using fabricated criminal charges, punish him for defending religious believers.

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.

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom, the best counter to religious extremism

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.

TAJIKISTAN: Why can't women wear the hijab for internal identity photos?

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Authorities now behaving "as badly as usual" after post-bombing crackdown

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.