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Helsinki Commissioners Decry Lack of Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan

WASHINGTON – Following a briefing held today, U.S. Helsinki Commissioners called for immediate steps by the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to uphold the right of individuals to freely profess and practice their faith consistent with their commitments as signatories to the Helsinki Final Act.

“In a part of the world where prospects for human rights are generally bleak, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan stand out as particularly egregious violators of religious freedom,” said Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). “As the panelists at today’s briefing made clear, there remains a mountain to climb when it comes to bringing both countries into compliance with the standards that their presidents agreed to when they personally signed the Helsinki Final Act. Respect for the right to freedom of worship is an important indicator for other fundamental freedoms.”

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, is a U.S. Government agency that monitors progress in the implementation of the provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.

“The absence of religious freedom and freedom of conscience in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is of deep concern and demands closer scrutiny. Practicing one’s religious convictions is, after life itself, one of the most basic rights. The faith communities in these countries face many reprisals and Uzbekistan should be designated a ‘Country of Particular Concern,’ and we should seriously reconsider Turkmenistan,” said Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) who opened the briefing with a statement.

Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. President can designate certain states to be “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) if he finds there are “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” occurring. “Particularly severe violations” means there are “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom” taking place. The 2005 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom was issued on November 8. Neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan were identified as CPCs when other countries were designated after the release of the report.

“I was surprised when the State Department failed to list Uzbekistan as a Country of Particular Concern in its religious freedom report. As to Turkmenistan, the minimal progress we had seen earlier seems to have stalled – more must be done,” added Commission Ranking Member Rep. Ben Cardin (D-MD).

“Ensuring the full enjoyment of religious liberties in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is a priority of our government,” said Commission Member Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) following the briefing. “I hope Mr. Karimov and Mr. Niyazov will do more to fulfill their international commitments, so that all of their citizens can exercise their inalienable rights to religious freedom.”

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have committed, as OSCE participating States, to guarantee freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Uzbekistan has been cited for persecuting Muslims and has grown increasingly repressive of other faiths. Turkmenistan has also repressed the practice of Islam and harassed the free practice of minority religions.

“Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are clearly the worst of the worst in the OSCE region. As President Bush said in his second inaugural speech to oppressed peoples everywhere, ‘the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors.’ Unless significant changes occur soon, the United States must consider both countries as prime candidates for CPC designation,” said Chairman Brownback.

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