Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I rise today to highlight the persecution of religious believers in Uzbekistan. The problem is worsening by the day, as the crackdown continues under the guise of “anti-terrorism.” While there is some justifiable threat of terrorism, the widespread violations of rule of law and human rights perpetrated by authorities are not defensible, especially in light of Uzbekistan’s OSCE commitments.
Under President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been the second most repressive former Soviet republic, next to Turkmenistan. Karimov has used new constitutions and referendums extending his tenure to remain in office, where he seems determined to stay indefinitely. In mid-1992, he cracked down on all opposition parties, driving them underground or into exile, and all opposition or independent media were eliminated. In Uzbekistan today, human rights are systemically violated. Arbitrary arrests, abuse and torture of detainees are pervasive, and flagrantly politicized judicial proceedings are routine. According to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Watch, there are well over 200 individuals who are prisoners of conscience either for their religious or political activities. Defendants have been convicted of criminal offenses based on forced confessions and planted evidence.
The regime has also refused to register independent human rights monitoring organizations (the Human Rights Society and the Independent Human Rights Society), while groups which cooperate closely with the government (Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Individual) have been registered without delay. On June 25, Uzbek police savagely beat Mikhail Ardzinov, one of the country’s most prominent human rights activists.
A key component of Uzbekistan’s assault on human rights has been a thorough campaign against religious believers. Since 1997, hundreds of independent Muslim activists and believers associated with them have been arrested. In February of this year, bombs exploded in the capital, Tashkent, which killed sixteen bystanders and damaged government buildings, narrowly missing President Karimov and government officials. Karimov accused Muslim activists of having carried out a terrorist attack intended to assassinate him. The harassment and detention of Muslim activists has greatly intensified since then and an ongoing series of show trials had discredit them as dangerous religious extremists. Last month, six people were sentenced to death and another 16 received prison terms ranging from eight to 20 years in a trial that by no means met Western standards for due process. Since then, two arrested Muslims have died in prison, and there is no sign of a let up.
President Karimov has argued that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia’s most populous and traditional state necessitates a hard line, especially because Islamic radicals from neighboring Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan are determined to subvert Uzbekistan’s secular, developing democracy. But the state’s repressive policies are radicalizing Muslims and turning them against the regime. Non-Muslims faiths, particularly Christians, have also been subjected to harassment, imprisonment and violations of their religious liberty, especially those who share their faith and are actively meeting. According to Compass Direct, Ibrahim Yusupov, the leader of a Pentecostal church in Tashkent, was tried and sentenced last month to one year in prison on charges of conducting missionary activity. Another court in June sentenced Christian pastor Na’il Asanov to five years in prison on charges of possession of drugs and spreading extremist ideas.
As with other cases mentioned below, witnesses attest that police planted a packet of drugs on Pastor Asanov and also severely beat him while he was in detention. Also in June, three members of the Full Gospel Church in Nukus were sentenced to long prison sentences. Pastor Rashid Turibayev received a 15-year sentence, while Parhad Yangibayev and Issed Tanishiev received 10-year sentences for “deceiving ordinary people” as well as possessing and using drugs. Their appeal was denied on July 13. Reports indicate that they have suffered severe beatings in prison, have been denied food and medical attention, and their personal possessions have been confiscated by the police, leaving their families destitute. Recently, the most senior Pentecostal leader in Uzbekistan, Bishop Leonty Lulkin, and two other church members were tried and sentenced on charges of illegally meeting. The sentence they received was a massive fine of 100 times the minimum monthly wage.
The leaders of Baptist churches, Korean churches, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as many others, have also been subjected to harsh legal penalties. Although they have filed for registration, local authorities refused to sign their documents.
Mr. Speaker, the State Department’s report on Human Rights Practices for 1998 reported that the Uzbekistan law on religion “limits freedom of religion” with strict registration requirements which make it virtually impossible for smaller church organizations to gain legal status. The law passed in June 1998, “prohibits proselytizing, bans religious subjects in school curriculums, prohibits teaching of religious principles, forbids the wearing of religious clothing in public by anyone except clerics, and requires all religious groups and congregations to register or re-register.” Also approved last May was a second law establishing the penalties if one were convicted of violating any of the statutes on religious activities. The penalties can range anywhere from lengthy prison sentences, massive fines, and confiscation of property, to denial of official registration rights. On May 12 of this year, Uzbekistan tightened its Criminal Code, making participation in an unregistered religious group a criminal offense, punishable by a fine equivalent to fifty times the minimum monthly wage or imprisonment of up to three years.
Mr. Speaker, these actions indicate that the policies of the Government of Uzbekistan toward religious groups are not moving in the right direction. In fact, these initiatives are in direct violation to Uzbekistan’s OSCE commitments, including Article 16.3 of the Vienna Concluding Document which states that “the State will grant upon their request to communities of believers, practicing or prepared to practice their faith within the constitutional framework of their States, recognition of the status provided for them in the respective countries.” In the Copenhagen Concluding Document of 1990 Article 9.1, Uzbekistan has committed to “reaffirm that everyone will have the right to freedom of expression including the right to communication. This right will include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”
Uzbekistan’s current course of strangling all forms of religious discourse is a flagrant, deliberate, and unrelenting violation of these principles. Last year Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to supporting religious freedom abroad through U.S. foreign policy. Considering the litany of violations affecting religious liberty and the ongoing persecution of believers, it is time for Congress to consider our aid programs to Uzbekistan, including our military cooperation programs which cost about 33 million dollars in this year alone. Congress should also reconsider our trade relationship with Uzbekistan and scrutinize other programs such as Cooperative Threat Reduction where we can leverage our influence to help protect religious liberty and human rights.