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BosNewsLife – Uzbekistan arrested an influential opposition figure amid growing pressure on dissidents and Christians in the former Soviet republic, news reports said late Monday, October 24. Reports from Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent said Sanjar Umarov, chairman of the opposition Sunshine Coalition was detained and charged with “embezzlement”, late Saturday, October 22, shortly after he called on the Uzbek government to start a political dialogue.

The Sunshine Coalition was formed in April, following an uprising in neighboring Kyrgyzstan that ousted President Askar Akayev. In May, the coalition denounced a government crackdown on protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan , in which hundreds of demonstrators were killed by security forces. The government denies troops’ involvement and puts the death toll at 187, several news reports said.

Russia and China have both backed Uzbek President Islam Karimov and supported the official explanation that troops were acting against foreign-financed Islamic extremists. Western countries have criticized Uzbekistan for excessive use of force while witnesses have described troops killing scores of unarmed protesters.

Umarov’s arrest comes as 15 defendants are on trial in Tashkent for their alleged role in the protest rally, reported the Voice Of America (VOA) network. Their case was also expected to be closely monitored by religious minorities, including Christians, who human rights groups say have been increasingly isolated from the support of local and foreign journalists and human rights activists.

Christian groups are often viewed as a threat to the autocratic government and its ideology in the mainly Muslim nation. Encouraged by the tougher line of the central government, local leaders have started to harass Christians in rural areas including in a remote village of Uzbekistan where they are being beaten, publicly humiliated and forced from their homes and jobs for converting to Christianity, a news agency investigating religious persecution said last week.

Compass Direct quoted Kaldibek Primbetov, leader of the beleaguered Protestant Christians in Janbashkala village, near Turtkul in southwestern Uzbekistan , as saying that “there is no place here for Christians.”

He said villagers who “abandoned the Muslim faith of their parents” are punished by local security forces, including the secret police, civic officials, the prosecutor’s office, and Muslim clerics controlled by a wealthy village “strongman”, Tokhtabay Sadikov.

Human rights group Forum 18 said earlier this month that one of the other reportedly persecuted church leaders, Andijan Protestant pastor Bakhtier Tuichiev, has said that since “the violent crushing” of the uprising he has regularly been called in by the local police and National Security Service (NSS) secret police and threatened with arrest if he refuses to shut down his unregistered Pentecostal church.

Pastor Tuichiev has been trying to register his church for several years without success. Under Uzbek law, a religious community cannot operate without state registration, which has forced many Christians underground, human rights activists say.

They claim the government has stepped up efforts to keep the world ill informed about these developments. In August, Igor Rotar, the Central Asia Correspondent of Forum 18 News Service was deported from Uzbekistan, apparently as part of what his organization described as “a wide crackdown on independent media and human rights” activists…[Go To Full Story]