New Lows for Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

New Lows for Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
Second Session Session
Thursday, June 27, 2002

Mr. Speaker, over the past several weeks, Uzbek authorities have increased the harassment and suppression of religious groups viewed as a threat to the government’s control of society. Uzbek authorities have systematically sought to stifle all aspects of religious life, including Muslim and Christian. It is currently believed that nearly 7,000 individuals are jailed for alleged crimes related to their religious affiliation or beliefs. Human rights organizations estimate that during the past year Uzbek courts convicted roughly 30 people a week under trumped-up charges.

 

Unfortunately, the list keeps growing. At the end of May, police arrested Yuldash Rasulov, a well-known human rights defender and devout Muslim. Rasulov’s work through the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan focused on government actions against Muslims choosing to worship outside the government-approved religious system. According to Human Rights Watch, officials charged Rasulov with “religious extremism,” claiming he recruited Islamic militants to work toward overthrowing the state. Notably, a search of his home reportedly found nothing of an incriminating nature. Since being arrested, Rasulov has been held in incommunicado detention.

 

Authorities also targeted Musharaf Usamnova, the widow of a prominent Muslim activist Farhod Usmanov. Her husband was reportedly murdered in an isolation cell while in government custody in 1999. Uzbek officials arrested Musharaf in April, bringing over 50 men to ensure her capture, and her situation is unknown at this time. Soon thereafter, the government arrested several other women who were protesting the long prison sentences given to relatives and Muslim activists. The court sentenced these women to jail terms, some up to four years.

 

Adding to the concern about the treatment of these individuals is the rampant torture throughout the Uzbek “justice” system. Once in custody, many are savagely tortured and beaten in hopes of securing self-incriminating statements or evidence against other suspects. To ensure convictions, police authorities plant evidence on innocent individuals, such as weapons, drugs or banned religious propaganda. Judges hand out harsh prison sentences, despite claims of pervasive torture. Furthermore, prison conditions are abominable, infested with disease and pestilence. Individuals imprisoned on religious offenses are reportedly treated extraordinarily harsh; persons wishing to pray are subjected to further beatings and harassment. Incommunicado detention and disappearances of individuals also occur.

 

Also of serious concern are the extrajudicial executions that transpired over the past year. Human rights organizations reported on the deaths of five individuals while in police custody. Despite some Uzbek Government reports listing the cause of death as “heart attack” or “brain tumor,” the open wounds, broken bones and multiple bruises on the corpses tell a very different story. Clearly, there is much cause to worry about the safety of all individuals in prison.

 

Besides physical arrests, the legal regime governing religious groups is designed to repress religious activity. Through these laws and regulations, the government places religious groups in an untenable situation. The government seems to allow approved mosques to operate and permits Christian communities to exist in relative peace (if they do not attempt to proselytize indigenous groups not traditionally Christian). Otherwise, for other religious groups, obtaining official recognition is nearly impossible, and the real threat of government repression looms large.

 

The 1998 Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations law instituted registration requirements designed to make achieving official recognition next to impossible. The 1999 amendments to the criminal code increased the importance of registration, as individuals attending an unregistered group are potentially subject to three to five years imprisonment for belonging to an “illegal” group. Individuals caught attending meetings of “banned” religious communities risk up to 20 years imprisonment. Uzbek courts frequently hand down lengthy prison sentences for alleged participation in illegal or banned groups. In addition, the religion law bans religious free speech and private religious instruction, and only permits government approved clerics to wear religious dress.

 

In recent weeks, Uzbek authorities appear more willing to use these provisions to repress unwanted groups and silence dissent.

 

Most recently, on May 25th, Uzbek officials raided the Mir Protestant Church in the Karakalpakstan region in western Uzbekistan. The raid, justified because the church is unregistered, interrupted a service and recorded the names of individuals representing local nationalities, such as Kazakhs and Uzbeks. Authorities ordered individuals of those ethnic groups to appear in court to explain their participation. While the court did not impose a fine, in a similar case in the same region, a court did fine four members of the New Life Church for violating the law on religious organizations.

 

Similarly, due to an inability to register, the small Christian community in Muinak has been denied permission to meet. According to Keston News Service, church members are now forced to meet in secret. Furthermore, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the town of Bukhara could be sentenced to five years in jail for leading an “illegal” religious service, as their community is unregistered. In addition, in May a Tashkent court found a Jehovah’s Witness guilty and fined him for illegal religious teaching when he was caught praying at a friend’s funeral.

 

Even more alarming was the request by the Uzbek Committee for Religious Affairs that Protestant groups stop preaching the Uzbek language, the country’s official language.

 

Mr. Speaker, the overall situation for religious freedom, and human rights generally, in Uzbekistan is bleak. Despite US involvement in the region, the recent increase of government efforts to suppress unrecognized religious groups is deeply troubling. Consequently, I urge the Uzbek Government to honor its commitments as a participating State in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

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    WASHINGTON—Today the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) announced the following hearing: Anti-Semitism, Racism and Discrimination in the OSCE Region Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:00 a.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Following an escalation of anti-Semitic hate crimes a decade ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intensified efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination throughout Eurasia and North America. Since 2004, three Personal Representatives have been appointed annually by the OSCE Chair-in-Office (currently Switzerland) to address anti-Semitism; racism, xenophobia, and discrimination including against Christians and members of other religions; and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. In an official joint visit to the United States, the Personal Representatives will address progress and ongoing challenges in the OSCE region a decade after the creation of their positions. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Rabbi Andrew Baker, Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism Professor Talip Küçukcan, Personal Representative on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination against Muslims Alexey Avtonomov, Personal Representative on Combating Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination, also focusing on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians and Members of Other Religions

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission to Hold Briefing on Human Rights in Turkmenistan

    WASHINGTON - The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) today announced the following briefing: Disappeared in Turkmenistan’s Prisons: Are They Still Alive?  Thursday, February 20, 2014 3:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 122 Ten years ago, the Organization for Cooperation in Europe’s Moscow Mechanism was invoked against Turkmenistan after hundreds were arrested in the wake of an alleged coup attempt. The resulting report detailed the lack of rule of law during the arrest process and subsequent trials, as well as the absence of information about the health and whereabouts of those imprisoned. And despite years of inquiries and a change in regime in Turkmenistan, the fate of many of those who have disappeared into Turkmenistan’s prisons over the past ten years remains unknown. Their families deserve answers, and this briefing will take a new look at these cases. Turkmenistan has been characterized as one of the world’s most repressive countries, with virtually no freedom of expression, association, or assembly. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom again recommended in 2013 that the Secretary of State designate Turkmenistan a “country of particular concern,” and the State Department placed Turkmenistan on its “Tier 2 Watch List” for trafficking in persons - the second lowest category. Imprisonment has been used as a tool for political retaliation against those who do speak out, and Turkmenistan’s prisons – closed to outside monitoring - are notorious for torture, poor conditions, and disease. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Catherine Fitzpatrick, Independent Expert on Eurasia Peter Zalmayev, Director, Eurasia Democracy Initiative Kate Watters, Executive Director, Crude Accountability Boris Shikmuradov, Editor, Gundogar.org

  • The New Silk Road Strategy: Implications for Economic Development in Central Asia

    This briefing proposed the question of what the impact will be in the Central Asian region as the United States prepares to leave Afghanistan. This strategy will particularly impact the economies of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as the United States has accelerated efforts to integrate Afghanistan with the economies of these countries. Witnesses testifying at this briefing addressed the ability of these governments to create the necessary conditions for more trade and exchange, including infrastructure development, efficient customs regimes and reliable transportation networks. The deep political divisions in this region that prevent collaboration on basic necessities such as water and electricity were also identified as hindrances to building greater economic cooperation. These issues were analyzed in the context of the current situation and the future outlook for economic development along the New Silk Road.

  • The State-Sanctioned Marginalization of Christians in Western Europe

    This briefing presented a close examination of recent reports and studies showing an alarming rise in social and governmental hostility toward religion in general—and Christianity in particular—in Western Europe. Various topics of discussion underscored how the current state of affairs is in tension with Europe’s history as the intellectual birthplace of religious freedom, as well as with its commitment to democracy. Witnesses testifying at the hearing – including Professor Tom Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University; Dr. Roger Trigg, Academic Director of the Kellogg Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Oxford University; and Roger Kiska, Senior Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom – noted with concern the growing European trend to pit human rights against religious freedom. Censorship of the cross and other religious symbols, growing restrictions on parental rights in the area of the education of their children, and limitation on free expression—including religious expression—through “hate speech” laws were also identified as obstacles for religious liberty in Western Europe.

  • Escalating Violence against Coptic Women and Girls: Will the New Egypt be more Dangerous than the Old?

    This hearing examined evidence that, as Egypt’s political and social crisis persists, violence against Coptic women and girls is escalating, including kidnappings, forced conversions, and other human rights abuses.  According to a new report released at the hearing by Michele Clark, at least 550 Coptic women and girls over the last five years have been kidnapped from their communities.  The few who have been found suffered human rights abuses including forced conversion, rape, forced marriage, beatings, and domestic servitude while being held by their captors, raising the question whether developments in the new Egypt are leaving Coptic women and their families more vulnerable than ever.  The hearing also included testimony and suggestions about possible initiatives the United States can take that may drastically curb the human rights issues in Egypt as they pertain to Coptic rights.

  • Healing the Wounds of Conflict and Disaster: Clarifying the Fate of Missing Persons in the OSCE Area

    The hearing examined efforts by governments and their partners in clarifying the fate of persons missing within a number of OSCE participating States and partner countries, especially in the western Balkans and northern Caucasus. The hearing also appraised the adequacy of assistance to governments and other entities engaged in locating missing persons, the obstacles that impede progress in some areas, as well as how rule of law mechanisms help governments fulfill their obligations to the affected families and society in clarifying the fate of missing persons. Currently, over a million persons are reported missing from wars and violations of human rights. In addition, there are thousands of reported cases a year of persons missing from trafficking, drug-related violence, and other causes. Locating and identifying persons missing as a result of conflicts, trafficking in humans and human rights violations and other causes remains a global challenge, with significant impact within the OSCE area.

  • Irish Chairmanship of the OSCE

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), Eamon Gilmore and others discussed what had transpired in regards to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) while Ireland was at the helm of the organization. This included priorities set by Gilmore involving Internet freedom. Congressman Smith also praised Gilmore for incorporating his experiences in Ireland into his leadership of the OSCE, such as drawing on Ireland’s experience in Northern Ireland’s peace process in reference to protracted conflicts elsewhere in the OSCE region. The hearing attendees went on to discuss the status of the agenda as it related to ODIHR and human dimension meetings.

  • Combating Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Region: Taking Stock of the Situation Today

    By most accounts, and thanks to the work of many courageous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the despicable evil of anti-Semitism has decreased in most parts of the OSCE region in recent years – but it still remains at higher levels than in 2000. This is simply unacceptable, and it was the topic discussed in this hearing. Concerns raised included political transitions in the Arab world and how they might affect Muslim-Jewish relations, including in Europe; the importance of engagement with Muslim communities in Europe; and growing nationalist and extremist movements that target religious and ethnic minorities.  Additionally the roles of the OSCE, U.S. government, and Congress in addressing continuing issues of anti-Semitism at home and abroad were discussed.

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