Monday 23 August 1999

UZBEK GOVERNMENT FREES ALL KNOWN CHRISTIAN PRISONERS by Felix Corley, Keston News Service Uzbekistan's government has gone on an offensive to try to counter well- founded accusations that it is oppressing its religious communities. The country's foreign minister ABDULAZIZ KOMILOV was the key speaker at a press conference on the topic of `Uzbekistan's contemporary policy concerning religion and freedom of worship', held at the National Press Centre in Tashkent on 12 August. The professed aim of the press conference was to explain to foreign and local journalists and the diplomatic corps how the new legislation enacted in May 1998 is being implemented. Observers are linking this offensive - which included attempts by Uzbek diplomats in Washington DC to convince US politicians that the cases of current religious prisoners will soon be reviewed - to the determination by the US State Department on whether Uzbekistan is among the countries that violate religious liberty in its annual review due on 1 September. Then came news that under a decree signed by President ISLAM KARIMOV on 20 August, five Christian prisoners and one Jehovah's Witness were freed. These were all the known non-Muslim religious prisoners. Those freed were the three Pentecostal Christians in Nukus, RASHID TURIBAYEV, PARAKHAT YANGIBAYEV and ESET TANISHEV, another Christian NAIL ASANOV imprisoned in Bukhara, another Christian IBRAHIM YUSUPOV imprisoned in Navoi and SERGEI BRAZGIN, a Jehovah's Witness from Uchkuduk. Turibayev was serving a fifteen-year sentence, Yangibayev and Tanishev ten years, Asanov five years, Yusupov one year and Brazgin two years. The presidential decree, which has not yet been published, also reportedly reduced the fine imposed on the senior Pentecostal leader in Uzbekistan, Bishop LEONTI LULKIN. On 11 June a court in Chirchik had sentenced Lulkin and two colleagues to a fine of 100 times the minimum monthly wage. The Uzbek authorities have also been making an attempt to hastily register a number of Christian groups that have so far been denied registration, including the Baptist churches in Almalyk and Yangibazar. The paperwork is already said to be prepared to register the Baptist church in Chirchik and the Full Gospel church in Nukus. The most recent moves to demonstrate an improving religious climate began on 11 August with a meeting in Tashkent organised by the government's Committee for Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice, to which leading Muslim and Christian leaders of a range of denominations were invited. The question of registration was discussed, and officials declared that the situation where only a very few Christian groups had achieved registration under the new law on religion represented an `abnormal balance'. Officials indicated that they would allow more Christian churches to register. There were even hints that the harsh 1998 law on religion might be amended. The local press gave large coverage to the press conference held the following day, with front-page articles in the Uzbek-language paper Khalq Sozi on 13 August and in the Russian-language Narodnoye Slovo the following day. According to these accounts, Foreign Minister Komilov stressed the government's determination to crush religious-inspired opposition. `We will not allow religious fanaticism and extremism in our country. The Uzbek government will resolutely wage a struggle against such negative phenomena.' In accordance with this, the Uzbek leadership, government and, particularly, the Committee for Religious Affairs promote the establishment of mutual tolerance and respect between people practising different religions and those not practising them, Komilov explained, as well as between religious organisations of various denominations. `Along with this, the government and the entire society of our country do not comprehend nor will they permit any religious or other fanaticism and extremism, actions aimed at bringing into conflict and straining relations and at stirring up hostility between different religious confessions and organisations, or the use of religion for political purposes to forcibly change the constitutional system.' He particularly pointed to the terrorist actions that the government blames on Islamic extremists. At the Tashkent press conference - which was also attended by representatives from the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, as well as local religious leaders - figures for registration were given. As of 5 August, according to the government's figures, 1,702 religious organisations were officially registered, of which 1,566 were Muslim organisations and 136 were of other religious confessions: Korean Protestant Church - 44; Russian Orthodox Church - 31; Full Gospel Christians - 18; Evangelical Baptists - 15; Seventh Day Adventists - nine; Jewish communities - eight; Lutherans - three; Roman Catholic Church - three; Baha'i Association - three; Armenian Apostolic Church - one; Bible Society of Uzbekistan - one. It was also reported that registration documents of a further 80 religious organisations are under consideration and that the number of religious organisations that want to be reregistered is growing daily. Officials mentioned the provisions of Decree No. 882 issued by President Karimov on 14 August 1998 that created a special commission to review reregistration applications by religious groups that were already functioning. The commission is empowered to recommend exceptions in registering communities with the Ministry of Justice. Speakers at the press conference claimed this applied to small religious minorities that do not have the 100 adult citizens required to present a registration application. Officials also cited statistics for Muslim pilgrimages. More than 24,000 Uzbek citizens have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj, since independence. Another 18,000 people have performed the Umra, the smaller pilgrimage to Mecca performed outside the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. As for religious education, officials spoke of the Higher Islamic Institute with 750 students that operates under the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Uzbekistan, as well as nine secondary specialised educational establishments (1,199 students including 345 girls), a seminary under the Russian Orthodox Church at which over four or five years from 13 to 15 people receive higher training and the Samarkand Protestant Seminary. They also mentioned the Islamic University set up earlier this year under a decree from the president. In his remarks, Komilov claimed that Uzbekistan was abiding by its commitments under international human rights conventions. `One of the priorities in reforming our society is to ensure and uphold the rights and freedom of people and their equality before the law stipulated in our constitution irrespective of their race, sex, nationality, language, social origin, beliefs, religion, personal and social status. Observing the rights and freedoms stipulated in the constitution has a particular importance in Uzbekistan which is the most multiethnic state in the Central Asian region where representatives of over 120 nations and nationalities live and work in peace and accord. In addition to this, the Republic of Uzbekistan is party to over 30 international documents on human rights and is taking measures to fulfil the commitments it has undertaken and to observe international norms in this field.' Despite these professions and the detailed statistics Uzbek officials gave at the press conference, there was disappointment among religious and human rights activists, as well as in the diplomatic community, that there was no announcement that the much-criticised 1998 legislation would be amended to remove the restrictive elements that violate international human rights agreements. Concerns have focused on the requirement to have 100 adult citizens per community, the criminalisation of unregistered religious activity and the bans on religious teaching and publishing. Even for communities that qualify to apply for registration, there is a long list of official agencies that have to give permission before an application can be submitted, opening the way for demands for bribes and obstruction from local officials who dislike any particular community. Despite Komilov's claims that his country abides by its international human rights obligations, the 1998 legislation clearly violates Uzbekistan's commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Uzbekistan acceded on 28 September 1995) as well as OSCE human dimension commitments. The registration statistics given at the press conference make clear the extent of the purge of religious communities in the compulsory reregistration drive in the summer of 1998. Conspicuous among the faiths that have failed to gain reregistration for any of their communities are the Jehovah's Witnesses, the New Apostolic Church and the Hare Krishna faith. Hints by government officials in recent weeks that the ban on registering Jehovah's Witness communities might be lifted have so far proved groundless. Of the other faiths, many have seen their numbers of registered communities halved with the enactment of the new law. The Evangelical Baptists had some 30 registered communities in early 1998, while now they have just 15. Nor has the Uzbek government been prepared to discuss the way the special commission set up under the August 1998 presidential decree to review registration applications operates. Officials both last year and during the press conference stressed that the decree applied to smaller religious groups unable to meet the requirement for 100 adult citizen members, but this is nowhere stated in the text of the decree. The decree itself set up no mechanism to govern its work and officials at the State Committee for Religious Affairs have declined to hand out a copy of the special commission's procedures. Officials have indicated that a number of communities - perhaps about a dozen - have acquired registration under this procedure without having the required 100 members, but have not been specific. Although the Christian prisoners have now been freed, there has been no move so far to free the many Muslims who have been imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith. Another key requirement for Uzbekistan to meet its international human rights commitments will be to amend its criminal and civil codes to eliminate the draconian punishments that can be handed down for peaceful religious activity, such as teaching religion, holding unregistered religious meetings and publishing religious literature. The amendments to the criminal code in 1998 and 1999 laid down penalties of up to five years in prison for peaceful religious activity. The timing of the press conference, the release of the imprisoned Christians and the handful of hasty registrations does not appear to be coincidental. The forthcoming report on religious liberty - prepared annually by the US State Department and presented to Congress, as mandated under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act - becomes one of the bases for US government policy.  For countries that have particularly severe religious liberty violations, the menu of sanctions kicks in - everything from a demarche (an official meeting or letter raising US concerns with the government), to cutting off exchange programmes, aid programmes, and then outright cutting off of all non-humanitarian aid. Uzbekistan is aware of widespread concern on Capitol Hill about violations of religious liberty and appears to be taking steps to blunt the impact of any criticism by removing the worst of the excesses. Uzbekistan's behaviour in the field of human rights will again come under scrutiny in Geneva in November, when the United Nations Committee against Torture will be considering Uzbekistan's Initial Report under the Convention against Torture (which the Uzbek government filed late). The maltreatment of religious prisoners - both Muslims and Christians - is certain to be discussed at the hearing. (END)