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Forum18 – Uzbekistan’s main international post office at Khalkaro in the capital Tashkent faces a huge task each week, opening parcels of religious books and magazines sent from abroad, sending one copy of each title to the government’s Religious Affairs Committee, collecting the copies back with the Committee decision as to whether or not to ban them, writing to the sender and the failed recipient to explain why the books have been rejected, and (sometimes) returning them at Uzbek Post Office expense to the sender. But Kural Tulebaev, the Director of Khalkaro Post Office, and customs officials based there have denied that this represents censorship. “We’re just following the law,” Tulebaev told Forum 18 News Service from Tashkent on 11 November.

The authorities have frequently confiscated religious literature from Muslims, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees. On occasion courts have ordered that religious literature be burnt (see F18News 6 September 2005 The authorities prevent literature being brought in from neighbouring Kazakhstan or from Russia and also obstruct it from being sent from abroad.

“Since the summer nothing has got through, whether in Uzbek, Karakalpak, Tatar or Russian,” a Russian-based Protestant who regularly tries to send Christian literature by post to meet requests from fellow-Protestants in Uzbekistan told Forum 18 on 11 November. “All this started about a month after the uprising in Andijan in May.” He said in the past Russian-language Christian literature generally got through even if it did not in local languages.

Censorship of religious literature entering the country – despite Uzbekistan’s international human rights commitments, including in the area of freedom of speech and freedom of religion – was introduced in 1998, when the country’s religion law was made much harsher. Article 19, which covers religious literature, includes this restriction: “Delivery and distribution of religious literature published abroad is done after expert analysis of its contents is carried out in the order prescribed by law.” Publication of religious literature within Uzbekistan is also subject to compulsory prior censorship.

“Expert analysis” of published or imported literature is conducted by the government’s Religious Affairs Committee in Tashkent . Forum 18 has been unable to find out on what basis the Committee permits or rejects individual books. Reached on 14 November, officials in the Expertise Department refused to explain to Forum 18 how the Department operated, the reasons for refusing specific literature and even the name of the head of the Department. Officials also declined to explain why Uzbekistan censors religious literature in defiance of its international commitments.

Forum 18 has received numerous copies of rejection letters in Russian from the Khalkaro Post Office, signed by Tulebaev or his first deputy Saidavali Ahrorhojaev and sent to the original senders in Russia and Kazakhstan . Some of the letters are also signed by the head of the PI-1 Section, E. Basheva, and one or other “Engineer of the Quality Service”. Some are on headed paper with a reference number, others are computer-generated letters on a blank piece of paper. All the letters Forum 18 has seen – which vary slightly but are of similar content – date from between May and late October…[Go To Full Story]