24 February 2004
Just hours before US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was due to arrive in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that an appeals court today (24 February) commuted a six-year sentence of hard labour imposed on a 62-year-old Muslim grandmother, Fatima Mukhadirova, to a fine roughly equivalent to 2/3rds the average annual salary. She is the mother of Muzafar Avazov, a religious prisoner tortured to death in August 2002. It has been suggested by Human Rights Watch that the authorities prosecuted Mukhadirova to take revenge, primarily because she tried to get a genuine investigation into the murder of her son and because she is an "independent Muslim woman". Her lawyer, Alisher Ergashev, told Forum 18 that "She is free now, but the court has not declared her innocent, so I am not satisfied with the ruling."
18 February 2004
Although believers are frequently tried and fined for conducting unregistered religious activity, which Uzbekistan has criminalised, Forum 18 News Service has discovered that, unseen by outsiders, the National Security Service (NSS, the former KGB) also often engages in "preventative work" with members of religious minorities. NSS officers indicate to believers that they know a lot about them and their community, and interrogate them further about the community's activity and plans in an apparent bid to intimidate and threaten them. Vadim Negreyev - an officer from the NSS national headquarters in the capital Tashkent cited by a number of believers for his role in investigating minority faiths – declined to discuss his work with Forum 18. The NSS engages differently with members of the majority Muslim faith – unregistered communities are immediately closed down as soon as they are discovered.
16 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has learnt that two Jehovah's Witnesses have been fined a month's wages for "failing to observe the prescribed manner of communicating religious doctrine" and their literature, including a copy of the New Testament, has been sentenced to be burnt. Judge Jamila Khojanova told Forum 18 that " "if we hadn't made the decision to have the literature destroyed, then Khojbayev and Ajigilev would have started distributing it again and we cannot allow that.". Forum 18 pointed out that this literature is not illegal, and so the bookburning is illegal. Another Jehovah's Witness has been sentenced to three days in jail. These sentences are part of a continuing pattern of persecution throughout Uzbekistan, in which the NSS (National Security Service) secret police have threatened "to work on the Jehovah's Witnesses in earnest".
16 February 2004
In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.
11 February 2004
Ethnic Uzbek Imams leading mosques in southern Kazakhstan have resisted state pressure to come under the 'Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan', Forum 18 News Service has found. Pressure followed a 2002 attempt to change the law on religious associations, which the Constitutional Council ruled contradicted the constitution. Kazakh officials have frequently privately told Forum 18 that the region is the country's "hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism". However, Kyrgyzstan is the only state in Central Asia where Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which seeks to unite Muslims worldwide under the rule of a Caliphate) is not officially banned, and most Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in South Kazakhstan region are ethnic Kazakhs. Commenting on this ethnic difference, a local NGO told Forum 18 that "Uzbeks in Kazakhstan live much better than they do in Uzbekistan," so they "are not interested in seeking open confrontation with the authorities."
10 February 2004
In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Kazakhstan, Forum 18 News Service notes that after restrictive amendments to the religion law were thrown out by the Constitutional Council in April 2002, the religious freedom situation has improved. Muslim, Baptist and Jehovah's Witness communities that did not wish to or failed to get registration had been routinely pressured or fined, but this has now stopped. However, an article of the Administrative Offences Code still prescribes punishment for leaders of unregistered religious communities and allows registered religious communities that hold youth meetings to be banned. Some officials – though not all - still maintain to Forum 18 that registration of religious organisations is compulsory.
28 January 2004
Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Gulya Boikova and Parakhat Narmanova, have been arrested, insulted and threatened with rape by police in Karshi (Qarshi), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 22 January a pending court case against the women was adjourned by Judge Abdukadyr Boibilov, while police gather more evidence. This is one example of the continuing persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, who are the religious minority most frequently victimised by the authorities. Witnesses have been subjected to vicious beatings by police, and a Jehovah's Witness is the only member of a religious minorities to have been sentenced to jail for his religious beliefs. (There are about 6,500 prisoners of conscience from the majority religion, Islam.) The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is probably explained by their being the most active religious minority in trying to spread their beliefs, and the Uzbek religion law banning "actions aimed at proselytism".
21 January 2004
State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
15 January 2004
An Uzbek official, who fined Baptist pastor Oleg Bader for running children's camps and a children's club attached to his church, has described the fine to Forum 18 News Service as "completely within the law". The church is being forced to change and re-register its statute by 27 January, even though children's work was included in the original statute. The pastor's lawyer has been denied access to the cases documents, and the justice department has refused to tell Forum 18 why this is so. It is feared that, like another church further north, re-registration may be denied and the church declared illegal. Sources have told Forum 18 that the authorities want to close the church because they do not want Christianity to spread in Khorezm region.
11 December 2003
Uzbekistan is denying clergy access to death row prisoners, Tamara Chikunova, head of the Uzbek NGO Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture, has told Forum 18 News Service. This denial violates two articles of the Uzbek Criminal Code, which specifically allow those sentenced to death the right to meet a member of the clergy. Fr Nikolai Rybchinsky, of the Central Asian diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, told Forum 18 that in the case of two death row prisoners "so far at least, Orthodox priests have not been allowed access to these prisoners. We have made an official appeal on this matter to the state administration for carrying out punishments, but have received no reply from there." Fr Rybchinsky also said that "in general, priests face significant difficulties gaining access to prisons." Forum 18 has learned that death row prisoners are denied access to religious literature. When a Muslim death row prisoner asked a senior prison official to give him a Koran, the official reportedly replied: "Are you joking? After all, that is a political thing."
21 November 2003
Velorom Kasymova, an official who took part in a secret police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, has claimed to Forum 18 News Service that stopping the meeting, interrogating the participants, and banning future meetings is legal, even though she cannot state any legal basis for this despite Forum 18's repeated requests. She claimed that members of a religious organisation can only meet at the address where the community is registered, yet the building is in fact registered to the Jehovah's Witnesses. The unrelated legal articles she quoted forbid: unlawful juridical activity; refusal to register a religious organisations statutes; running children's and young people's clubs; and running labour, literary and other clubs. Also banned is giving religious instruction without specialist religious training or the permission of the central administration office of the religious organisation, and giving religious instruction in a private capacity. Yet none of these activities took place.
20 November 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Tajikistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the confusion that leads to officials wrongly insisting that registration of religious communities is compulsory. Unregistered religious communities do encounter difficulties with the authorities, but Forum 18 has been told that excesses "are not as a rule state policy, but simply the arbitrary actions of local officials." Compared to neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan generally follows a more lenient policy towards unregistered religious communities. This may be because Tajikistan, after a civil war, is not able to exert such harsh controls as Uzbekistan can. The Tajik authorities are most concerned with controlling Muslim life, because Muslims make up more than 90 per cent of the country's population, and because of the aftermath of the civil war. The possibility exists that government pressure on believers may intensify in the near future, under a proposed new law on religion.