Since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1992, fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, have not been respected. In addition to a restrictive law on religion that severely limits the ability of religious communities to function in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek government continues to exercise a high degree of control over the manner in which the Islamic religion is practiced. Uzbek authorities also continue to 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 has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of persons in recent years, many of whom are denied the right to due process, and there are credible reports that many of those arrested continue to be tortured or beaten in detention. Though security threats do exist in Uzbekistan, including from members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups that claim a religious linkage, these threats do not excuse or justify the scope and harshness of the government's ill treatment of religious believers. Because the government of Uzbekistan has engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom, the Commission recommends to the Secretary of State that Uzbekistan be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC. The Commission's CPC recommendation for Uzbekistan should not in any way be construed as a defense of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist and highly intolerant organization that promotes hatred against moderate Muslims, the West, Jews, and others.

The Uzbek government continues to exercise tight control over all religious practice in the country. Despite the constitutional guarantee of the separation of religion and state, the government under President Islam Karimov strictly regulates Islamic institutions and practice through the officially-sanctioned Muslim Spiritual Board. The Uzbek government has also closed approximately 3,000 of the country's 5,000 mosques that were open in 1998. In what many view as the country's most actively religious area, the Ferghana valley, some mosques are being used as warehouses or have been confiscated by the state for other purposes; in the Kashkadarya region, some mosques are allowed to open only for major religious holidays.

Over the past 10 years, and particularly since 1999, the Uzbek government has arrested and imprisoned, with sentences of up to 20 years, thousands of Muslims who reject the state's control over religious practice or who the government claims are associated with extremist groups. According to the State Department's 2004 human rights report, there are an estimated 5,500 such people currently imprisoned in Uzbekistan. In some cases, piety alone is reported to result in state suspicion and arrest. Human rights organizations report that many of those in detention were arrested on specious drug charges or for possession of literature of a banned religious organization. Once arrested, they frequently are denied access to a lawyer or are held incommunicado for weeks and sometimes even months. Many individuals detained for these reasons are treated especially severely in prison; those who pray or who observe Muslim religious festivals are by many accounts subjected to further harassment, beatings, and possibly torture, in efforts to force them to renounce their religious or political views.

The use of torture is widespread and, despite promises from the government to halt it, has not diminished. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, in his February 2003 report on Uzbekistan, concluded, "torture or similar ill-treatment is systematic" in Uzbekistan and that the "pervasive and persistent nature of torture throughout the investigative process cannot be denied." The report also pointed out that "the practice of maintaining families in a state of uncertainty with a view to punishing or intimidating them and others must be considered malicious and amounting to cruel and inhuman treatment." Even after the publication of the Rapporteur's report, reliance on the use of torture in detention has not decreased significantly. One human rights organization has documented 10 deaths from torture over a five-year period; two prisoners are known to have died in early 2005.

The government of Uzbekistan does face threats to its security from certain groups that claim religious links, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has used violence in the past but whose membership reportedly declined significantly as a result of U.S. military action in Afghanistan in late 2001. Uzbekistan continues to be subject to violent attacks, as occurred in several incidents in 2004, although the motivation of those responsible has not been fully established.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in most Muslim countries, purports not to engage in violence but is intolerant of other religions and has sanctioned violence in some circumstances. The group calls for the establishment of a worldwide caliphate in place of existing governments and the imposition of an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. Although it does not specify the methods it would use to attain those goals, it does, according to the State Department, reserve the "possibility that its own members might resort to violence" in an effort to achieve them. In addition, the State Department reports that the literature of the Hizb ut-Tahrir includes "strong anti-Semitic and anti-Western rhetoric." Alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir make up most of the thousands in prison; however, in the majority of cases, Uzbek authorities have presented no evidence that these persons have participated in any violent acts. Many of those arrested and imprisoned are not in fact affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir but are only accused of membership or association, sometimes due to possession of the group's literature when they are arrested. Some reportedly had the group's literature planted on them at the time of arrest.

The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations passed in May 1998 severely restricts the exercise of religious freedom. Through a series of regulations that are often subjectively applied, the law imposes onerous hurdles for the registration of religious groups; criminalizes unregistered religious activity; bans the production and distribution of unofficial religious publications; prohibits minors from participating in religious organizations; prohibits private teaching of religious principles; and forbids the wearing of religious clothing in public by anyone other than clerics. A total of 100 religious communities of all faiths are known to be currently seeking registration. Although the only religious community registered in 2004 was a Jewish group in Ferghana, a Jewish organization in Tashkent was denied registration last year. In denying the registration application, Uzbek officials reportedly told the group that a Jewish organization already exists in Tashkent and the Jewish community does not need another one.

As with Muslims, pastors or other members of Protestant churches have been arrested on spurious drug or other charges. Several Christian leaders have reportedly been detained in psychiatric hospitals, severely beaten, and/or sentenced to labor camps. In the past year, Christian groups continued to have their churches raided, services interrupted, Bibles confiscated, and the names of adherents recorded by Uzbek officials. There are frequent reports that, in such official actions, they are accused of being members of alleged extremist organizations. In this atmosphere, some Christian groups in various parts of Uzbekistan have been forced to operate underground; the situation of Protestants is particularly difficult in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the country's northwest, where it is almost impossible for churches to be registered.

In October 2004, the Commission traveled to Uzbekistan and met with senior officials of the Foreign, Internal Affairs, and Justice Ministries, the Presidential Administration, the Committee on Religious Affairs, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman's office. The delegation also met with Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities and other religious groups, Uzbek human rights activists and lawyers, victims of repression and their families, Western nongovernmental organizations that are active in Uzbekistan, and U.S. Embassy personnel. In March 2005, the Commission held a briefing with representatives of the Russian human rights group Memorial and the Uzbek Legal Aid Society on religious freedom in Uzbekistan; the panelists, along with Commission staff, were later interviewed by the Russian Service of the Voice of America.

Language reflecting a Commission recommendation on Uzbekistan was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005. The Congress conditioned funds to Uzbekistan on its "making substantial and continuing progress in meeting its commitments under the 'Declaration of Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework Between the Republic of Uzbekistan and the United States of America,'" such as respect for human rights, including religious freedom.

Throughout the past year, the Commission held numerous meetings with various delegations of Uzbek religious leaders, as well as with human rights groups and academics.

In addition to recommending that Uzbekistan be named a CPC, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

  • ensure that it speaks in a unified voice in its relations with the Uzbek government and that U.S. statements and actions are coordinated across agencies to ensure that U.S. concerns about human rights conditions in Uzbekistan are reflected in all dealings with the Uzbek government;
  • ensure that U.S. assistance to the Uzbek government, with the exception of assistance to improve humanitarian conditions and advance human rights, be made contingent upon establishing and implementing a specific timetable for the government to take concrete steps to improve conditions of freedom of religion or belief and observe international human rights standards, steps which should include:
    • ending reliance on convictions based solely on confessions, a practice that often is linked to ill treatment of prisoners and implementing the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture (June 2002) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (February 2003);
    • halting the detention and imprisonment of persons on account of their religious beliefs and practices;
    • establishing a mechanism to review the cases of persons previously detained under suspicion of or charged with religious, political, or security offenses, including Criminal Code Articles 159 (criminalizing "anti-state activity") and 216 (criminalizing membership in a "forbidden religious organization"); releasing those who have been imprisoned solely because of their religious beliefs or practices as well as any others who have been unjustly detained or sentenced; and making public a list of specific and detailed information about individuals who are currently detained under these articles or imprisoned following conviction;
    • implementing the recommendations of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Panel of Experts on Religion or Belief to revise the 1998 law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and bring it into accordance with international standards;
    • registering religious groups that have sought to comply with the legal requirements; and
    • ensuring that every prisoner has access to his or her family, human rights monitors, adequate medical care, and a lawyer, as specified in international human rights instruments and allowing prisoners to practice their religion while in detention to the fullest extent compatible with the specific nature of their detention;
  • ensure that U.S. security and other forms of assistance are scrutinized to make certain that this assistance does not go to Uzbek government agencies, such as certain branches of the Interior and Justice Ministries, which have been found to be responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom as defined by IRFA;
  • reinstate Uzbek-language radio broadcasts at the Voice of America (VOA), and use VOA and other appropriate avenues of public diplomacy to explain to the people of Uzbekistan why religious freedom is an important element of U.S. foreign policy, as well as specific concerns about violations of religious freedom in their country;
  • establish "American corner" reading rooms in various regions of Uzbekistan, including in the capital Tashkent, which should include materials on democracy, civic education, human rights, the role of religion in society and other relevant topics;
  • encourage scrutiny of Uzbek human rights concerns in appropriate international fora such as the OSCE and other multilateral venues and facilitate the participation of Uzbek human rights defenders in multilateral human rights mechanisms;
  • urge the Uzbek government to agree to visits by UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Independence of the Judiciary and provide the full and necessary conditions for such visits;
  • respond publicly and privately to the recent expulsions of U.S. non-governmental organizations and the numerous new restrictions placed on their activities; unless these restrictions are rescinded, the U.S. government should make clear that there will be serious consequences in the U.S.-Uzbek bilateral relationship, including a ban on high-level meetings;
  • conduct continued careful monitoring of the status of individuals who are arrested for alleged religious, political, and security offenses and continue efforts to improve the situation of Uzbek human rights defenders, including by pressing for the registration of human rights groups and religious communities;
  • continue to develop assistance programs for Uzbekistan designed to encourage the creation of institutions of civil society that protect human rights and promote religious freedom, programs that could include training in human rights, the rule of law, and crime investigation for police and other law enforcement officials; since such programs have been attempted in the past with little effect, they should be carefully structured to accomplish, and carefully monitored and conditioned upon fulfillment of, these specific goals:
    • expanding legal assistance programs for Uzbek relatives of detainees, which have sometimes led to the release of arrestees;
    • expanding "train-the-trainer" legal assistance programs for representatives of religious communities to act as legal advisers in the registration process;
    • specifying freedom of religion as a grants category and area of activity in the Democracy and Conflict Mitigation program of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Democracy Commission Small Grants program administered by the U.S. Embassy; and
    • encouraging Uzbek authorities to move ahead with a planned series of national and local public roundtables between Uzbek officials and representatives of Uzbek civil society on freedom of religion;
  • increase opportunities in its exchange programs for Uzbek human rights advocates and religious figures, and more specifically:
    • expand exchange programs for Uzbek religious leaders to include representatives from all religious communities;
    • expand exchange programs for Uzbek human rights defenders, including participation in relevant international conferences and opportunities to interact with Uzbek officials; and
    • in case an Uzbek participant in an exchange program encounters difficulties with the Uzbek authorities upon return to Uzbekistan, ensure that the U.S. Embassy vigorously protest such action and if it continues, inform the Uzbek authorities that there will be negative consequences in other areas of U.S.-Uzbek bilateral relations, including a ban on high-level meetings.
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