UZBEKISTAN: New Way of Criminalising Believers?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 24 September 2002

As the Uzbek government steps up pressure on unregistered communities of minority faiths, some minority religious leaders fear the renewed official interest in the content of religious publications is an excuse to crack down on minority faiths by alleging that these publications promote "religious hatred". "It is not unlikely that Tashkent has found a new way of criminalising believers," Anatoly Melnik, a leading member of the Jehovah's Witnesses in neighbouring Kazakhstan, told Keston News Service. Melnik, who retains close links to fellow Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, maintains that leaflets allegedly disparaging Islam have been planted on detained Jehovah's Witnesses.

The early September raid on a Baptist meeting in the town of Chirchik - during which police officers accused the Baptists of distributing literature that allegedly declared the superiority of Christian teaching above other religions and so incited religious hostility (see separate KNS article) - is merely the latest where religious literature has been the focus of accusations.

Shortly before the raid on the Chirchik Baptist church, Jehovah's Witness Marat Mudarisov was arrested and charged under article 156 (inciting national, racial or religious hatred) of Uzbekistan's criminal code (see KNS 9 September 2002). Speaking to Keston by telephone on 19 September, Mudarisov's lawyer Rustam Satdanov said that the investigation into Mudarisov's case was concluded on 14 September and that the trial would take place shortly. According to Satdanov, one of the main charges against Mudarisov was the fact that when his apartment was searched, a leaflet was allegedly discovered in which Islam was criticised in disparaging terms. Satdanov is convinced that this leaflet was planted on his client. Keston was first told that a leaflet critical of Islam had been planted on Mudarisov by Anatoly Melnik, a member of the ruling council of Jehovah's Witnesses of Kazakhstan, in a conversation 10 days earlier. "Another brother of ours from Uzbekistan had a leaflet with similar contents planted on him," Melnik added.

However, the spokesman for the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists of Uzbekistan said he had not heard of such occurrences affecting minority communities before. "This is the first time that I have heard of such literature being found on believers," Dmitri Pitirimov told Keston on 19 September in Tashkent. "Happily, we have not had this problem. In the early 1990s, a huge amount of religious literature with the most varied of contents was brought to Uzbekistan, including some that criticised Islam. However, we are extremely careful to make sure that no such literature reaches our brothers."

It is notable that charges of disseminating a doctrine that disparages Islam are being brought by law enforcement agencies mainly in the provinces where the population is exclusively Uzbek. Bakhtierjon Tuichiev, the pastor of the Christian Full Gospel Church in the town of Andijan in the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan, near the border with Kyrgyzstan, has recently been in constant fear of arrest (see KNS 15 July 2002). "The atmosphere around me is thickening," he told Keston by telephone on 19 September. "The political police, the NSS [formerly the KGB] are taking advantage of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the population in our town is Muslim, and has spread the rumour that I insult Islam in my sermons. The people have been turned against me."

Shoazim Minovarov, the chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, appears to take the law enforcement agencies' accusations that some minority faiths' publications insult Islam at face value. "It is true that this is the first time we have come across a leaflet in Uzbekistan containing insults against Islam," he told Keston by telephone in Tashkent on 19 September. "Maybe organisations which are especially active in the proselytism that is banned in our country (I have in mind primarily the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Full Gospel Pentecostals) have grown sufficiently strong to venture to do this." (END)