(Tashkent, March 30, 2004)—The Uzbek government has arrested and tortured thousands of nonviolent Muslim dissidents who practice their faith outside state-controlled religion, Human Rights Watch said today in a report on this campaign of religious persecution.
"The Uzbek government is conducting a merciless campaign against peaceful Muslim dissidents," said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. "The scale and brutality of the operations against independent Muslims make it clear that these are part of a concerted and tightly-orchestrated campaign of religious persecution."
Just last month, a 62-year-old woman, Fatima Mukhadirova, was convicted on charges of religious extremism after she had spoken out about the torture and death of her son in custody. Her son, imprisoned for "religious extremism," died in prison in August 2002 after he was apparently submerged in boiling water. Mukhadirova was released following international outcry. But police raids and arrests continue unabated and at least 26 independent Muslims have been convicted since January.
On March 14, 44-year-old independent Muslim prisoner Abdurahman Narzullaev died in custody under suspicious circumstances after participating in a hunger strike.
The report is based on five years of research conducted by Human Rights Watch throughout Uzbekistan, including interviews with some 200 independent Muslim victims and their relatives, as well as other eyewitnesses, human rights defenders and government officials. To research the report, Human Rights Watch also attended dozens of trials, gathered police and court documents pertaining to the cases of more than 800 people, and reviewed hundreds of supporting documents, including medical records, death certificates, victims' letters and responses from government agencies.
The Uzbek government has branded independent Muslims as "extremists" or "Wahhabis"—a pejorative term used by the Uzbek government to suggest people are “fundamentalists” and not as a reference to actual believers in Wahhabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia. They are imprisoned on charges of "subversion," "encroachment on the constitutional order," or "anti-state activities." They are arrested, tried in grossly unfair proceedings, and receive sentences of up to twenty years in prison. Those targeted for arrest include people whom the state deems as "too pious," including those who pray at home or wear a beard—which is a sign of piety.
The report refutes the Uzbek government's frequent claim that the arrest of nonviolent Muslim dissidents is necessary to counter terrorism. In 1999 and 2000, a militant group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan conducted armed operations in the region. The Uzbek government has blamed the IMU for a series of bomb attacks that took place in Tashkent in February 1999. However, the people whose cases are featured in this report—like thousands of others targeted in the government crackdown—were not charged with involvement in those bombings or accused of membership in the IMU, but were instead imprisoned for their peaceful religious beliefs and practices.
"Uzbekistan is a close ally of the U.S. and other powerful Western states, but it cannot hide behind the global war on terrorism to justify religious repression," said Denber.
Torture is rampant in Uzbekistan, but police mete out particularly harsh treatment to religious detainees to compel confessions or other testimony. The Human Rights Watch report documents 10 deaths from torture over a five-year period. The report details the cases of numerous others tortured through such methods as beatings, electric shock, asphyxiation, suspension from their wrists or ankles, rape and burning with cigarettes or lit newspaper.
The abuse continues as religious prisoners serve out their sentences in squalid prison conditions. Prison guards beat and rape them, and put them in solitary confinement as punishment for prayer or other religious observance.
In mass public denunciations reminiscent of the Stalin era, government officials parade independent Muslims or their relatives in front of assembled members of their community, and vilify them as "traitors" or "enemies of the state." Police arrest and torture the relatives of so-called extremists, sometimes holding them hostage in police custody until the suspect turns himself over to authorities.
More than half of the government’s targets have been members of the nonviolent Islamic group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation). This group, at once a religious and political organization, advocates the establishment of the Caliphate—a form of Islamic state—in Uzbekistan and other traditionally Muslim countries.
Several countries, including Russia and Germany, have banned Hizb ut-Tahrir. The German ban cited the anti-Semitic content of the group’s literature. The Uzbek government views the group's dissent as threatening and subversive. Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, participants in the group's study circles, and those who disseminate or even posses the group's literature are sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Human Rights Watch has called on Uzbekistan's allies, such as the United States and EU countries, to denounce Uzbekistan's persecution of independent Muslims and to demand a halt to the mass arrests and torture.
"It is shameful that the international community has stood by and allowed this campaign to continue," said Denber, "If Uzbekistan's allies want the world to believe that they are against the persecution of Muslim dissidents, they are going to have to take some action to show where they stand."
In April the Bush administration is expected to decide whether or not to certify that Uzbekistan has made the "substantial and continuing progress" on human rights necessary to release some $50 million in aid, including military assistance, to the Central Asian country. The Uzbek government’s human rights record is coming up for close scrutiny also by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is to decide on its level of engagement with Uzbekistan in the coming days. Members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, currently meeting in Geneva, will also determine what action to take in the face of the Uzbek government’s continued defiance of international law. Human Rights Watch calls on all members of the international community to use every opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with the Uzbek government’s rights record.
The three cases below illustrate the cruelty of the campaign against independent Muslims and the obstacles victims face in their search for justice:
Maruf Makhkamov was arrested on October 30 and accused of "Wahhabism." The 25-year-old man was kept for two months in a basement cell in Tashkent police headquarters, where officers beat him every day until he lost consciousness. Police arrested Makhkamov's brother and said he would be released only when Maruf confessed to being an "extremist." The officers threatened to arrest Makhkamov's wife as well and to gang rape her in front of him. He signed the confession and on February 23 went on trial with six complete strangers as part of a covert "extremist" group. The judge admitted as evidence Makhkamov's coerced confession, ignored his testimony about the torture he had endured, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Writing from prison on March 1, Maruf Makhkamov pleaded for help to gain his freedom and for rights groups to let the outside world know his story.
In January 2000, law enforcement officers arrested Gairat Sabirov on accusations that he was a "Wahhabi." They held him incommunicado in a basement cell for five months. During the first days of his detention, officers from the SNB (the former KGB) kept Sabirov in a "sauna" or wet-room burned his body with lit cigarettes, and then raped him. At his trial, the judge ignored Sabirov’s complaints of torture and sentenced him to 14 years in prison. Prosecutors charged that he and 16 other men were part of an "extremist group" and argued that their private religious study indicated they were part of an organized group that was spreading literature containing "fundamentalist" and "extremist" ideas. They even characterized the men's participation in a semi-regular soccer game at a stadium in the city center as part of their "preparation to build an Islamic state." Sabirov and the others remain in prison today.
A member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Nakhmiddin Juvashev turned himself over to SNB officers in 1999 after hearing government promises that those who acknowledged they had followed the "wrong" religious path would be forgiven. Instead, he was arrested and tortured. Juvashev's complaints to local authorities about the torture only led to further abuse: agents stripped him to his underwear, handcuffed him and hung him from a horizontal bar, then beat him until he agreed to sign a statement saying that he had never been tortured. Juvashev was sentenced, paroled, and then re-arrested by police in August 2000. He was again tortured, tried and sentenced for "religious extremism." Juvashev is currently serving a 14-year term in prison.