Ethics & Public Policy Center

Unrest in Uzbekistan: Crisis and Prospects

Published in U.S. Helsinki Commission on May 19, 2005


[In his capacity as a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, EPPC Vice President Michael Cromartie testified on May 19, 2005 on Capitol Hill before the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (known as the “Helsinki Commission”). His testimony related to the recent tragic events in Uzbekistan, the policy options for Washington and Tashkent, the causes of the current crisis, the history of the regime, including its record of human rights abuses, and the regime’s relationship to the United States.]

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As you know, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent government agency that was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The commission monitors religious freedom in other countries and advises the president and secretary of state and Congress on how to best advance religious freedom abroad.

In October of last year, the commission visited Uzbekistan and met with government officials, human rights activists, religious leaders and former prisoners in the Fergana Valley, including in Andijan as well as Tashkent and Samarkand.

The commission notes that many of the Uzbek government policies toward religious groups and individuals foreshadowed the tragedy in Andijan. In April 2005, the commission found the government of Uzbekistan to be responsible for severe human rights violations, including freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and religion, and recommended to the secretary of state that Uzbekistan be named a country of particular concern.

Uzbekistan has a highly restrictive law on religion that severely limits the ability of religious communities to function and that criminalizes all unregistered religious activity.

The 1998 Uzbek law on religion is used by government officials to deny registration of various religious groups, particularly minority religious communities, resulting in an effective ban on activities of these groups. At present, some 100 unregistered religious communities of all faiths are seeking registration.

The Uzbek government also exercises a high degree of control over the manner in which the Islamic faith is practiced. There are very few outlets for Muslims to learn about or practice their faith, other than those provided by the government via the Muslim Spiritual Board.

After 1998, the Uzbek government authorities closed 3,000 of the reported 5,000 functioning mosques in the country. The commission delegation in Uzbekistan experienced directly the government’s determination to monitor the activities of Muslim leaders.

Certain officials from the Uzbek interior ministry insisted on being present at the commission’s meetings with local imams in Samarkand and in cities in the Fergana Valley. Even more heavily handed tactics were used in the city of Farg’ona, where Uzbek security agents made overt efforts to disrupt the commission delegation’s meeting with Uzbek human rights activists, former prisoners and other victims of repression.

Government authorities crack down harshly on Muslim individuals, groups and mosques that do not conform to government prescribed practices or that the government claims are associated with extremist political programs. This crackdown has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of persons in recent years, many of whom are denied the right to due process.

There are also credible reports that many of those arrested continue to be tortured or beaten in detention. There are, according to the 2004 State Department Human Rights Report, approximately 5,500 prisoners in Uzbekistan who have been convicted because they chose to exercise their faith outside the state’s control or the government claims are associated with extremist groups.

Confessions are the main evidence used to convict persons accused of membership in suspect organizations. Such confessions are often obtained before the accused has gained access to a lawyer or doctor, and frequently result from ill treatment or torture.

A defendant’s lawyer frequently is denied access to his or her client until after a confession has been obtained, although such access should be granted within 24 hours under Uzbek law.

There is also a widespread reliance on guilt by association. Members of the same family are arrested and sentenced for alleged involvement with proscribed religious organizations. Any outward display of piety can arouse suspicion and may lead to sanctions, including possible arrest.

Now security threats do exist in Uzbekistan, including from members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (H.T.) and other groups that claim a religious linkage. But these threats do not excuse or justify the scope and harshness of the government’s ill treatment of religious believers.

Because the Uzbek criminal justice system is not transparent, it is impossible to know fully the basis on which people have been detained or convicted. Nonetheless, the State Department, as well as domestic and international human rights organizations, concluded that many of these prisoners have been convicted on charges that relate to their religious beliefs or alleged association, not on specific evidence or advocacy of acts of violence.

I should note that the commission’s recommendation that Uzbekistan be designated a CPC should not — should not — in any way be construed as a defense of H.T., an extremist and highly intolerant organization that promotes hatred against moderate Muslims, the West, Jews and others.

The strict governmental control over the content and character of Islamic teaching, worship, and practices results in the aspiration on the part of some in Uzbekistan to seek alternative voices and sources of religious authority. The commission delegation heard from many people that the absence of permitted religious alternatives only serves to generate — it only serves to generate more support for underground groups, including H.T.

The U.N. special rapporteur on torture concluded in his February 2003 report on Uzbekistan that, and I quote, “Torture or similar ill treatment is systematic,” unquote. Uzbek human rights activists and relatives of prisoners confirmed these findings to the commission delegation.

Prisoner’s relatives are also often denied access to the trials of their family members. Uzbek human rights activists told the commission delegation that even after the publication of the report on U.N. special rapporteur on torture, reliance on the use of torture in detention has not decreased, indeed one Uzbek human rights lawyer said the methods of torture have become more advanced.

Now the recent tragic events occurred as a result of public protest over the trial of 23 local businessmen who reportedly employed thousands of people in an impoverished region. The Uzbek government claims that the charitable activities of these 23 businessmen are criminal and extremist and linked to H.T.

Given the nature of the Uzbek judicial system along with the Uzbek practice of convicting persons solely for their alleged membership in banned organizations, it is impossible to ascertain the veracity of such official claims. The commission joins those who are calling for an international investigation, possibly by the OSCE which has on the ground presence in Uzbekistan, to clarify the tragic course of events in Andijan.

Now I would like to highlight some of the policy recommendations made by the commission to the U.S. government. And I would also like to request that the full set of the commission’s recommendations in its 2005 annual report [available here in PDF format] section on Uzbekistan be included in the record.

First, the U.S. government should ensure that it speaks in a unified voice in its relations with the Uzbek government. This has not always been the case. For example, last year the State Department refused to provide funding for the Uzbek government due to its human rights violations. Yet, one month later, the Defense Department granted funds to the Uzbek government.

U.S. statements and actions should be coordinated across agencies to ensure that U.S. concerns about human rights conditions in Uzbekistan are reflected in all dealings with the Uzbek government.

Second, U.S. assistance to the Uzbek government, with the exception of assistance to improve humanitarian conditions and advance human rights, should be made contingent upon establishing and implementing a specific timetable for the government to take concrete actions to improve conditions of freedom of religion and observe international human rights standards.

Initial steps by the Uzbek government should include ending reliance on convictions based solely on confessions; halting the detention and imprisonment of persons on account of their religious beliefs; establishing a mechanism to review the cases of persons previously detained under suspicion or charged with religious, political or security offenses; implementing the recommendations of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe Panel of Experts on Religion and Belief to revise the 1988 law on freedom of worship in religious organization to bring it in accordance with international standards; registering religious groups that comply with the legal requirements; and ensuring that every religious prisoner has access to his or her family, adequate medical care, and a lawyer, as specified in international human rights instruments.

Third, the U.S. government should reinstate the Uzbek language radio broadcasts at Voice of America and should use VOA and other appropriate avenues of public diplomacy to explain to the people why religious freedom is an important element of U.S. foreign policy, as well as specific concerns about religious freedom in their country.

Fourthly, the U.S. government should advocate greater involvement of the OSCE center in Tashkent, including the collection of monitoring data on religious freedom and hiring a staff member in the OSCE center in Tashkent for monitoring these activities. The staff member should report to the OSCE tolerance unit in the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw.

And finally, the U.S. government should urge the Uzbek government to agree to a visit by U.N. special rapporteurs on freedom of religion of belief and the independence of the judiciary and provide the full and necessary conditions for such a visit.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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