UZBEKISTAN: Increased jailing of Muslims for being Muslim
There has recently been an increase in trials in which Muslim religious convictions form part of the case against devout Muslims, Forum 18 News Service has noted. Thus, unusually, Uzbekistan has this month jailed two followers (adepts) of Sufi Islam, a movement which was supported by the authorities but which they now view with great suspicion. Also jailed were eight Muslims whose only crime seems to have been forming a kind of "club" of like-minded people, who discussed religion and read the Koran, as well as Mannobjon Rahmatullaev, who was kidnapped from Russia and sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment. The trial of 23 Muslim businessmen, who are accused of belonging to an Islamic charitable organisation continues. Before now, devout Muslims put on trial by the authorities were usually only accused of terrorist activity without any convincing evidence. Protestant Christians, the relics of Russian Orthodox saints and martyrs, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses, have all also recently been targeted by the authorities.
Tashkent human rights activist Surat Ikramov, who attended the hearings, told Forum 18 that it became clear during the trial that both Muslims are adherents of the Sufi Naqshbandi order. Ikramov believes the case against the two men was completely fabricated and that they had no connection to the banned Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir movement. "Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets were planted on them during their arrest and they were cruelly tortured in the investigation prison to try to get them to confess," he told Forum 18 from Tashkent on 21 February. (An outline of Hizb ut-Tahir's aims is given at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=170 .)
However, it is noteworthy that neither Toshmatov nor Umrzokov were sentenced directly for being Sufi adepts. Ikramov told Forum 18 that he believes they simply fell victim to a "quota" for unmasking "religious extremists" imposed by the Uzbek authorities and so, as is frequently the case in Uzbekistan, incriminating leaflets were planted on them.
At least a quarter of Muslims in Uzbekistan are thought to use some elements of Sufism in their religious practice. Until recently, Sufism was openly supported by the authorities as an alternative to Islamic fundamentalism, which calls for Islam to be cleansed of regional accretions and for a return to the original Islam of the time of the prophet Mohammed (see F18News 1 November 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=441). But at present, the authorities do not support Sufism and the NSS secret police regards the Sufist "myurid" (discipleship) system as a possible terrorist organisation (see F18News 13 May 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=319).
Recently the number of trials in which Islamic believers' religious convictions feature in the case against them has increased. Before now, Muslim believers were usually accused of terrorist activity without any convincing evidence. Tashkent human rights activist Mikhail Ardzinov told Forum 18 from Tashkent on 21 February of the recent case against eight so-called "Wahhabis" in the capital. On 14 February Tashkent City Criminal Court sentenced Ismatullo Kudratov to 7 years' imprisonment, Dilshod Yuldashev to 7 years, Batyr Yuldashev to 7 years, Hasan Asretdinov to 6 years, Abdullo Nurmatov to five and a half years, Karim Ziyayev to five and a half years, Eamberdiyev to five years and Negmajan Ermatov to five and a half years, all under article 244-2, part 1 of the Criminal Code (forming religious extremist organisations). "Wahhabism" is a label widely and indiscriminately used in Central Asia for Islamic radicals and Muslims who refuse to attend official mosques and even for Jehovah's Witnesses by some Uzbek officials.
In the trial of these eight Muslims, it is notable that in essence the court recognised that their only guilt was that they studied Islam together and adhered to the Hanbali school of Islam. "These men were accused of studying Islam from the position of Wahhabism," Ardzinov told Forum 18. "They criticised the form of Islam traditional in Uzbekistan. They were also accused of establishing a mutual-aid fund." Ardzinov – who was present in court - said those arrested had made no attempt to change the country's religious life by spreading their views to other Muslims. The meetings of the eight were a kind of "club" of like-minded people, who discussed religion and read the Koran. Unlike traditional Uzbek Muslims, these Muslims regarded the veneration of mazars (tombs) and extravagant weddings and funerals as deviations from Islam.
Among other examples of the authorities targeting of devout Muslims are the cases of Mannobjon Rahmatullaev, who was kidnapped from Russia and sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment (see F18News 21 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=515) and the continuing trial of 23 Muslim businessmen in Andijan [Andijon], accused of belonging to an Islamic charitable organisation (see F18News 14 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=508).
Contacted by phone by Forum 18 on 22 February, the chairman of the Uzbek government committee for religious affairs Shoazim Minovarov stated that he knew nothing of trials of devout Muslims in Uzbekistan. When Forum 18 pointed out that it was his job to know, Minovarov replied: "You can think what you like. I don't want to answer this question. As they say in English – no comment!"
As well as devout members of the majority faith, Islam, being targeted by the authorities, members of the minority faiths of Protestant Christianity and Jehovah's Witnesses have also been targeted (see F18News 16 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=512). And in a bizarre move, Uzbekistan is the only former Soviet country to ban the entry of the relics of saints and martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church (see F18News 15 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=510). (END)
For background information, see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=105 .
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at
21 February 2005
An Uzbek former teacher of Arabic in a Russian mosque, kidnapped in 2004 and illegally taken to Uzbekistan without the consent of the Russian authorities, has been given a lengthy prison sentence on a wide range of terrorist-related charges, which his lawyer told Forum 18 News Service are "absurd". Mannobjon Rahmatullaev was sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment on 20 January, his lawyer telling Forum 18 that only one offence, under article 223 (illegal exit abroad or illegal entry), when he travelled on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1992. The imam-hatyb of the Saratov central mosque, Mukadas Bibarsov, where Rahmatullev worked, said he had been "shocked" by his colleague's abduction. "If Rahmatullaev had really been involved in politics then I would have been in favour of his deportation from Russia," Bibarsov told Forum 18 from Saratov on 17 February. "I knew this man well and I can testify that he was an honest faithful Muslim who never committed any crime."
16 February 2005
Halima Boltobayeva, a Muslim prisoner's wife, has been freed after two months in jail and given a one year suspended sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Local human rights activists have told Forum 18 that she was framed by prison staff, after she refused to accept their claims that she dressed like a "shahidka", a term widely used for a female Muslim terrorist. As a devout Muslim, she wears the hijab headscarf and a long garment that covers her entire body. The Prosecutor had demanded that she be given a three year jail sentence, which demand Judge Zainuddin Begmatov did not accept. He told Forum 18 that he had "imposed an extremely light sentence" and couldn't understand why human rights activists were not happy with the situation. But local human rights activist Ahmajon Madmarov commented to Forum 18 that "an innocent person was not vindicated and spent almost two months in prison. So the authorities have once more demonstrated that they can punish believers at their discretion."
16 February 2005
The Protestant Peace Church, just outside the capital Tashkent, and the capital's Jehovah's Witness congregation are the latest victims, which Forum 18 News Service knows of, of the state's refusal to grant registration to religious communities it does not like. Both communities are now at risk of prosecution, with the possibility of large fines and jail terms. The reasons given to the Peace Church for the decision, in a letter which contained grammatical mistakes seen by Forum 18, included the claim that the application contained "many grammatical and spelling mistakes." None of the reasons given are specified by Uzbekistan's religion law. A Jehovah's Witness spokesperson told Forum 18 that the impact of the decision on Jehovah's Witnesses will be "a never-ending cycle: the police periodically fine our believers because of the activities of unregistered religious congregations, while the justice authorities simply ignore our attempts to register those religious congregations."