UZBEKISTAN: New Campaign Against Jehovah's Witnesses?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 27 September 2002

In the wake of a series of detentions and possible criminal prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses in Bukhara region in western Uzbekistan, a local Jehovah's Witness leader has told Keston News Service he fears a "new campaign" by the authorities against members of his faith is now underway. "This unhappy development is characteristic not only of Bukhara region but also of the whole of Uzbekistan," Jehovah's Witness leader in Bukhara region, Erken Habibov, told Keston by telephone on 25 September.

Two Jehovah's Witnesses, Eleonora Habibova (Erken's wife) and Svetlana Lipilina, were detained on 21 August in the city of Bukhara on suspicion of open-air preaching, Habibov reported. Religious literature was confiscated from them in the course of a search carried out at the police station of the city's Tekstilny district.

The judge for administrative cases, Umarov, concluded that Habibova and Lipilina had been distributing religious literature that was banned from distribution in Bukhara region. Because Habibova and Lipilina had previously faced charges under the administrative code of distributing religious literature, Umarov decided to refer their case to the procuracy of Tekstilny district, with the aim of bringing a criminal case against them under article 244.1 of Uzbekistan's Criminal Code (preparation or dissemination of documents containing a threat to general safety and social order). Article 244.1 prescribes criminal punishment for the dissemination of documents containing "religious extremist views", and for "the use of religion with the aim of disrupting civil harmony".

Habibov told Keston that the religious literature confiscated from the women had not been banned in Uzbekistan but had been sent by official channels to the registered Jehovah's Witness centre in the town of Chirchik on the outskirts of Tashkent.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of cases where religious literature has been confiscated from religious minorities in Uzbekistan. Additionally, believers tend to be accused, without evidence, of disseminating literature in which one religion is declared superior to others (see KNS 24 September 2002).

"Because Lipilina and Habibova have already been charged with unlawful religious activity under the administrative code, we are currently considering the question of whether to bring a criminal case against them," the public prosecutor of Tekstilny district, Bahodyr Nazarov, told Keston by telephone on 26 September. "So far, I cannot say what decision we will take. We have taken their passports in case they run away."

Keston has also learnt of a declaration sent to the public prosecutor in the town of Kagan on the outskirts of Bukhara by local Jehovah's Witness Sergei Bukayev. Bukayev writes that on 22 September he offered to read a verse from the Bible to a passer-by in the town. Because the woman did not want to listen, he went on his way. Suddenly people in civilian clothing came up to him and, without introducing themselves or providing any explanation, ordered him to come with them and took him to the town police station. Once there, Bukayev's bag was searched, and when police officers found a Bible there, along with several copies of the Jehovah's Witness magazines "The Watchtower" and "Awake!", they began to insult him. Then Bukayev was taken to his home and, after an unauthorised search, all his religious literature was seized. In his declaration, Bukayev emphasises that "this literature is not banned and has more than once been subjected to expert analysis during which it has been confirmed that it represents no danger to the existing state structure".

During the search of Bukayev's home, his passport was also seized, and this has still not been returned to him. This is against the passport regulations, which prohibit the confiscation of passports from citizens except in cases of conviction or arrest. Bukayev also notes in his declaration that every request he made to police officers in the course of his detention and the search was ignored. The search itself was carried out without witnesses. The latter were invited to come after it had been completed, simply in order to sign the confiscation document.

A similar declaration dated 24 September was written to the head of police in the town of Kagan by local Jehovah's Witnesses Shakhzoda Pulatova and Dilovar Muhamedova. According to Muhamedova and Pulatova, on 17 September they were detained by police officers in Kagan and taken to the town's police station. Once there, police officers began to insult the women, saying: "Look at yourselves, look what you are like. If we wrapped you in paper and threw you to the dogs, even the dogs would not look at you." The insults were accompanied by unbridled swearing. The police officers checked the women's bags and confiscated religious literature from them. The women's passports were also seized. The police officers also declared that "all Jehovah's Witnesses should be gathered in one place and blown up". Afterwards, police officers went to Pulatova and Muhamedova's apartments and seized all their religious literature, including copies of the Bible. Pulatova and Muhamedova were not allowed to go home until one o'clock in the morning.

"I am aware of Bukayev's case and that of Pulatova and Muhamedova," the head of police for Kagan, Izot Sheinazarov, told Keston on 27 September. "No-one insulted them and all the actions by the police officers were within the law." He confirmed that the police have taken their passports and that their cases have now been referred to the town procuracy because they had previously faced charges under the administrative code. "We will not give them back their passports because we are afraid they may leave town before the court case."

"This is the first I have heard of incidents concerning Jehovah's Witnesses in Bukhara region, and so it is hard for me to comment on them," Per Normark, human rights officer at the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, told Keston by telephone on 26 September. "I can only say that the principles of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe include the right of people to express their views. Uzbekistan, as a member of the OSCE, must follow these principles." (END)