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ICC Note: US-Based NGO’s are coming under tremendous pressure in Uzbekistan because the Uzbek government fears the influence of the Western culture on its citizens. Motivation for closing the recently convicted Central Asian Free Exchange seems to be political, but the government is using “illegal religious activities” as one of the main charges for shutting it down.

Eurasia.net (7/12/06) – A US-based NGO is waging an uphill fight to retain the right to operate in Uzbekistan . Uzbek authorities moved to closed down offices of the Central Asian Free Exchange (CAFE) after a court convicted employees on charges of illegal religious activities. NGO representatives are vigorously fighting the shut-down, but analysts give their appeal little chance of success, given Tashkent ’s far-reaching clampdown on NGO activity.

Uzbek courts have found CAFE offices throughout the country guilty of numerous violations of its accreditation terms and ordered the group’s offices to be permanently closed. The supposed violations included an unregistered logo and the lack of an internet license. Representatives of the NGO filed an appeal July 7, and a ruling is expected in the coming days. With the judicial system firmly under the control of President Islam Karimov’s administration, it would seem highly unlikely that the government’s action to shut down CAFE will be overturned.

CAFE, which had been operating in Uzbekistan since 1991, first came under pressure in May after several employees were accused of violating Uzbek laws concerning NGOs and religious activity. CAFE focused its activities on small-scale development and technical projects, such as refurbishing an orphanage, teaching English, and training healthcare workers. The organization’s employees tended to be long-term residents who spoke fluent Uzbek.

CAFE’s Chief Executive Officer, James Hall, said in an interview with EurasiaNet that “all expatriates in CAFE are Christian, as it is the motivation for them being here.” But he described as “complete nonsense” the charges that CAFE used its projects for attempts to convert Uzbeks to Christianity. “In our projects there is no religion of any kind,” he stated. Hall insisted CAFE maintained strict guidelines to ensure that the NGO’s operations complied with Uzbek legislation governing religious activity. Employees were forbidden from attending large religious gatherings, and were not supposed to discuss religious matters while engaging in CAFE-related activities.

CAFE’s religious dimension has always been known to the Uzbek authorities. The NGO managed to renew its accreditation in 2004, even as other non-governmental groups were coming under pressure, in particular the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation (OSIAF) in Tashkent .

The case against CAFE was politically-motivated, with the charges of proselytizing serving as a pretext for government action against the NGO, some Uzbek observers contend. Authorities’ ultimate aim, the analysts add, is to close down all Western NGOs operating in the country. A detailed examination of the closings of CAFE offices in Tashkent and the Ferghana Valley city of Kokand would appear to confirm the political nature of the case.

A letter of complaint to the regional Ministry of Justice, seen by a EurasiaNet contributor, claims that laws were “grossly broken” by CAFE staff, who distributed illegal material and used inducements to convert 20 people in the village of Komil Cho’li. But Chris Duff, director of the Kokand CAFE office, rejects this. He admits that CAFE staff had contact with some of the individuals cited in the complaint. But Duff maintained any such contact occurred in private, and he echoed Hall’s denial that the NGO’s programs were used to convert Uzbeks. He went on to assert that the individual villagers concerned had all converted to Christianity prior to coming into contact with the CAFE staffers. One of the defendants accused of proselytizing had never set foot in Komil Cho’li, CAFE representatives said…[Go To Full Story]