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“Uzbekistan is One of the Most Repressive New Independent States,” says Helsinki Commission Chairman Smith

WASHINGTON – “Since mid-1992, Uzbekistan has been one of the most repressive New Independent States under President Islam Karimov,” said Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today at a Commission hearing, “The State of Democratization and Human Rights in Uzbekistan.”

“There are no registered opposition parties, all media are tightly censored and there are no independent human rights monitoring organizations,” said Smith. “Religious liberty has also been challenged. While for the most part the Jewish community has not encountered difficulties from government bodies, and President Karimov has pursued good relations with Israel, Evangelical Christian denominations have faced official harassment. Moreover, since 1997, an ongoing crackdown on Islamic believers has been underway. That has been documented in the State Department’s Human Rights Report and many reports by non-governmental human rights groups. Uzbekistan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election in January 2000 against this general background.”

Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA) commented, “From my travels, I saw that the fear of Islamic extremism is one of the main motivating factors behind the Uzbek Government’s crackdown on all religious groups…However, fear does not absolve governments of their responsibilities to protect the rights of citizens to religious liberty…By prohibiting unregistered religious gatherings and criminalizing free religious speech, Uzbekistan violates its OSCE commitments to religious liberty and free expression.”

“No democratic state can ever justify what reliable reports tell us about continuing torture, extorted confessions, or the planting of false evidence. Even in circumstances where a genuine threat exists to the well-being of the state, rule of law and due process norms must be followed in order to insure that human rights are protected,” he said. Pitts concluded, “The current government policy of violating human rights of Uzbek citizens is an obstacle that must be overcome. Uzbekistan’s full potential cannot be realized until these human rights issues are dealt with in a constructive and just way.”

John Beyrle, Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large and Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States, testified, “Uzbekistan has shown little progress in democratization. The U.S. will likely discourage other governments and the OSCE field missions from monitoring the upcoming December and January elections.”

“Free and open media are vital to the growth of true democracy, [yet] soviet-style press censorship remains pervasive; the rule of law remains weak; and, the exercise of religion is hindered by the 1998 restrictive law on religion,” he said.

His Excellency Sodyq Safaev, Ambassador of the Republic of Uzbekistan commented, “Uzbeks today face the numerous challenges of building a secular democracy and opposing the threats of religious fundamentalism and political extremism. … The main achievement of Uzbekistan during the short period of its independence was that it has managed to avoid altogether the disintegration of society, economic collapse and chaos. …76% of the population of Uzbekistan is satisfied with the government’s job. … They see that all institutions of statehood and government are functioning and providing them whatever the state should provide to its citizens. …The people also see that they have been freed from the shackles of the state economy. …The people also see that now, at last, for the first time this century, they are genuinely free to travel abroad. …Both individuals and ethnic groups are free to leave the country, should they so desire. Although Uzbekistan is not fully democratic in the sense that the West understands it, although mistakes have been done, although plenty of shortcomings still exist, it is certainly the freest system under which Uzbeks have ever lived. And [the] nation is firmly committed to the further strengthening of secular democracy and [the] free market,” he concluded.

Cassandra Cavanaugh, Researcher, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, presented a very different perspective: “By the Fall of 1998, …some have estimated that over 80% of all working mosques were closed.”

“We see the following pattern of human rights violations: Arrests are clearly discriminatory, based on evidence of piety such as beard-wearing (now extremely uncommon), regular attendance at suspect mosques or individual prayer or Koranic study alone or in groups; Police often plant evidence which forms the basis for initial charges: small amounts of narcotics, ammunition, or increasingly, banned religious literature, or a combination; The authorities act as hostage-takers, arresting family members or occupying family homes to coerce the appearance of a wanted person. Family members have also been sentenced to prison terms solely on the basis of their affiliation with suspected religious figures; From beginning to end, the right to a fair hearing is violated, with accused persons most often deprived of the right to counsel, held in incommunicado detention, and tortured. There are increasing reports of deaths in detention. Being accused is usually tantamount to being convicted, as the presumption of evidence is entirely lacking,” she said.

Alarmingly, she noted, “The government is building what can only be described as a concentration camp reportedly exclusively for Muslim prisoners at Jaslyk, in the ecological disaster zone of the Ust-Yurt plateau. According to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan there have been at least 38 deaths in custody in this facility.”

“The U.S. should move beyond talking about the threat of terrorism not justifying repression.…Recent experience shows that the threat of sanctions can bring about change.…Therefore, we urge you to make Uzbekistan subject to all measures provided for under the Religious Freedom Act,” she concluded.

Paul Goble, Communications Director, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, noted that “Tashkent is converting Islam from a religion to a political force of enormous and potentially destabilizing force.” Noting the building of two prison camps for political opponents, he noted, “These camps will resemble the GULAG of the Soviet past, and even if no one is ever confined to them, their existence will cast a chilling shadow over the population.”

“Uzbekistan’s most open question is “after Karimov, what?” said Goble. Lawrence Uzzell, Director, Keston Institute, commented, “It cannot be stressed too often that Uzbekistan’s 1998 law on religion is the most repressive in all of the former Soviet Union. Only in Uzbekistan has the state formally criminalized religious dissent, by formally amending its criminal code to impose prison terms of up to five years for unauthorized religious activity. Unlike Russia, which allows even unregistered groups to gather in the homes of their own members, Uzbekistan explicitly prohibits any kind of communal activity by such a group—even a Bible study in one of its member’s apartments. By law Uzbekistan explicitly bans all forms of missionary activity, bans religious education at the elementary or secondary level, and subjects all imported religious literature to state censorship.”

Abdurahim Polat, Chairman of the Birlik Party and exiled opposition leader, noted, “Preparations for elections in Uzbekistan are going ahead with full speed, which are going on totally against democratic principles. The opposition is banned from participating in these campaigns. Exiled leaders of democratic opposition decided to delay their return to Uzbekistan. These elections will not have any positive effect on the state of the nation. On the contrary, it may have a negative effect and destabilize the situation. It seems like civil war is unavoidable.”

“With the assistance of the international community, mainly from the member countries of the OSCE, it is still possible to stop the bloodshed and find the solution in the best interests of the Uzbek nation,” he concluded.

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