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Uzbekistan : a new wave of serious persecution may be just beginning
By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)
Special to ASSIST News Service
AUSTRALIA (Assist News Service) — The religious liberty situation for Protestant Christians in Uzbekistan has deteriorated markedly since May 2005. There are two reasons for this and while one is well understood, the other is not.

As is well understood, the era of the Soviet-era dictators running post-Soviet states is coming to an end. Uzbekistan’s President Karimov has been watching as post-Soviet states have turned West-ward and embraced democracy and liberty; and as corrupt, repressive pro-Russian, Soviet-era Communist dictators have been driven from power in “colour revolutions”: Georgia (Rose, 2003), Ukraine (Orange, 2004) and Kyrzygstan (Tulip, 2005). Then in December 2006 the Soviet-era strongman Saparmurat Niyazov, President of Turkmenistan, died aged 66yrs.

Karimov is keen to hold on to power and so he is quick to repress anything that could threaten the status quo, including threatening non-traditional religions. Radical Islam (largely foreign influenced) is clearly a serious threat to Central Asia . However, because Protestant Christianity is perceived as being essentially Western, anti-corruption and pro-democracy, Karimov regards it as equally threatening.

While Karimov’s repression and violence have hurt the Church, they have enabled the Islamist revolutionary and militant groups that feed off social anger to grow. Karimov has been perpetuating a vicious reactionary cycle and Christians are caught up in the slipstream.


The other reason why the religious liberty situation for Protestants has deteriorated over recent years is actually more important but less understood.

In 1998 when the US State Department passed its Freedom from Religious Persecution Act (HR 2431), Uzbekistan had several Protestant pastors serving long prison sentences with hard labour on bogus drugs charges. To avoid incurring US sanctions as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), Uzbek leaders negotiated with the US and then released their religious prisoners. In November 2006, after two years of escalating religious repression, the US State Department added Uzbekistan to its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). On 9 Marc h 2007 Uzbekistan sentenced one of its leading registered Protestant pastors to four years in a penal colony after a sham trial. Clearly Uzbekistan doesn’t care about the US or CPC status any more. (Link 1)

There is no doubt that the critical turning point was the May 2005 uprising in Andjian.

After the May 2005 Andjian incident WEA RLC News & Analysis wrote (19 July 2005) that Karimov was fighting a war for the status quo against radical Islam, and it was anticipated that “non-traditional” Protestant Christians would doubtless be caught up in the ensuing crackdown. (Link 2)

However, immediately after the May 2005 Andijan uprising, another factor entered the equation and it is this factor that has caused the most serious damage to the religious liberty, human rights and security situation in Uzbekistan.

In May 2005, the West was in the midst of a “War on Terror” and Uzbekistan , a key ally in the War on Terror, was struggling with serious issues regarding Islamic revolutionary and al-Qaeda linked terror ist organisations. (Forty-seven people were killed in March and July 2004 in a series of well planned and well facilitated terrorist attacks that targeted Uzbek police, private and commercial facilities, and the US and Israeli Embassies.)

Despite this, after the May 2005 incident in Andijan, Western media, human rights monitors and governments were exceedingly quick to reject the Uzbek government’s assertion that Islamic radicals and militants had attempted a coup d’etat. Western groups preferred rather to accept (even passionately embrace) narrative coming from Andijan that alleged that a repressive and violent government had, for no reason at all, massacred innocent peaceful protesters as they gathered to decry their poverty and the lack of justice, liberty and democracy under the Karimov regime.

The US , too quick to pass judgment, enacted reactionary policies including sanctions. From this point onwards, President Karimov no longer viewed the US as a partner and ally in the “War on Terror”. Months later, in July 20 05, President Karimov officially evicted the US military base from Uzbekistan . The Karshi-Kanabad (K2) Airbase had been established in the wake of 9/11 to serve as a hub for combat and humanitarian missions into Afghanistan .

Along with this, Karimov turned increasingly towards Russia , China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, which Uzbekistan joined in 2001) which is committed security and “non-interference” and to reducing US influence in Central Asia .

US influence in Uzbekistan has been dealt a serious blow. Not only has the US lost its ability to exert positive influence over Uzbekistan in terms of religious liberty, but due to the souring of relations the West has lost its ability to influence Uzbekistan ‘s secular government towards reform and openness.


A most comprehensive and useful piece on the May 2005 Andijan incident comes from the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Res earch and Policy Center based in Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, Washington , DC , and Uppsala University , Uppsala , Sweden .

Their paper (herein referred to as the Silk Road paper) entitled: “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus : implications for the EU” by Zeyno Baran, S. Frederick Starr, Svante E. Cornell, published in July 2006, is extremely helpful in many ways. (Link 3)

This paper examines the nature, in terms of history and evolution, of both Islam and secularism in Central Asia and the Caucasus . It looks at how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have affected the region, and how a proliferation of foreign Islamic missionaries (mostly of the “Wahhabi” brand), who have arrived during and since perestroika, has radicalised elements over recent decades. It also examines the ideology and methodology of the main radical Islamic groups of the region.

One particularly interesting thing in this paper is that it shows how Islamist groups use, adopt or exploit other causes (ie poverty, or nationalism), and h ow they have become extremely sophisticated in manipulating (and sacrificing) people and employing propaganda and Western slogans, all for their own political ends. The same patterns of exploitation, manipulation (of people and media), lies and propaganda are seen in all conflicts where militant and revolutionary Islamists are present and seeking to co-opt Western support for their agenda (for example, in the Middle East and the Balkans).

The Silk Road paper devotes pages 33-40 to the re-emergence of terrorism in Uzbekistan . Pages 35-50 deal with the May 2005 Andijan incident.

According to the authors, Baran, Starr and Cornell, radical Islamist and terrorist activity in Central Asia increased markedly from early 2004. After the March and July 2004 terror attacks in Uzbekistan the US criticised Uzbekistan ‘s human rights while doing little to assist it in its investigations or response to the terror attacks. According to the authors, “Overall, the terrorists were greatly emboldened, concluding that Western opinion would allow them literally to get away with murder.” (p 34)

The Silk Road paper claims that the Islamist organisations had also been watching the “colour revolutions”. They too knew the days of corrupt Soviet-era (secular) dictators were coming to an end, and they were determined to be the ones to take power in the event of any regime change. The event that most impacted them was the November 2004 “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan . This was different to the previous “colour revolutions” as it was violent – yet the West accepted it anyway. The Tulip Revolution (see link 4) gave the Uzbek Islamists their precedent.

One of the most difficult things for human rights groups has been the fact that the overwhelming majority of protestors in Babur Square in Andijan on 13 May 2005 were not armed militant Islamist ideologues. Rather they were family people, women and children, humble citizens just wanting a better life. As Human Rights Watch reported: “The Uzbek government has stated that the Andijan protests were organized by ‘religio us fundamentalists.’ ‘Protesters grievances, however, appeared to focus on a wide range of issues, including poverty and corruption.”

The fact is both are true. The rally that brought several thousand citizens into Babur Square in Andijan was organised by Islamist groups. They promoted the event as Uzbekistan ‘s chance for a “colour revolution”. The repressed, poor and fearful of Andijan came out in their thousands to protest repression and stage their people’s revolution. They were unarmed and unaware that their peaceful people’s revolution was going to be used as a cover for a violent Islamic coup d’etat. The citizens of Andijan were also unaware that those who organised the rally would eventually exploit them as human shields.

As a little bit of background: in the section entitled, “Radical Groups: A Survey” (commences on page 19) the Silk Road paper reports (p24-25) that “Akramiya” (the group that organised the uprising – an Andijan based off-shoot of Hizb ut-Tahrir) has been committed to establishing “Islamic socia lism” in Andijan. One strategy has been for wealthier followers to set up small business and employ young men who then must attend ideological study-groups after work. Around one-fifth of the profits of those businesses go into a fund for Akramiya, which is committed (like Hizb ut-Tahrir) to the overthrow of the secular government and the enactment of Sharia law and Islamic rule through the re-establishment of the Caliphate. Their work has won hearts as it has helped alleviate poverty in the region.

This is how the Silk Road paper describes what happened in Andijan in May 2005 (page 36).

“In June, 2004, 23 businessmen, followers of Akramiya, were arrested and in February 2005 they were put on trial. Peaceful demonstrations in support of the defendants went on for several weeks. According to reports from the region, Akramiya organized the uprising in a carefully planned way: the accused businessmen promised to pay their staff a full day’s salary if they attended the protests. Moreover, their relatives organized transport for others to come from more distant regions. The protesters were orderly and asking merely for ‘justice’ for their relatives and friends. By May 12th, the presumed final week of the trial, there were already several thousand peaceful demonstrators.

“That night, the Uzbek government arrested some demonstrators. This arrest marked the start of the uprising. On the morning of May 13, armed militants first seized a police station, then a military post, and then a high-security prison, collecting weaponry in each place and killing officials and others along the way. Negotiations between the government and the militants broke down, in part because the release of Akram Yuldashev [founder of Akramiya, in prison for involvement in terrorist bombings in 1999] was the main demand of the insurgents. Expecting a harsh reaction from the government, the insurgents then formed human shields with women and children.” [This point is backed up by footnotes that include a Forum 18 release that reports that the insurgents took hostages and abus ed them: “. . .several hostages received severe beatings. The hostages had wire tied round their necks and were placed at the perimeter of the square as human shields. Therefore the first to die from the shots fired by Uzbek government forces were the hostages.” Link 5]

The Silk Road paper continues: “While it is yet to be determined who shot first, by the end of the day, some two hundred persons were dead, most killed by government troops but a large number killed by the armed insurgents.”

This picture is confirmed by other investigating groups, such as the Council on Foreign Relations (see report: “Documenting Andijan”, link 5), and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (see report: “The Andijan Uprising, Akramiya and Akram Yuldashev”, link 6, which includes a 69 minute video of the 13 May 2005 Andijan incident filmed by two locals who believed they were filming a historic event – a people’s revolution in Uzbekistan). This film, which is also referred to in the CFR report “Documenting Andijan”, shows building s in flames and thousands of peaceful protesters listening to speeches, encircled by armed Islamist militants, some of whom are making Molotov cocktails. The militants are clearly preparing for armed conflict – for a violent Islamic coup d’etat.

The Silk Road paper comments: “Radical Islamist groups have won the information war. While the insurgency was an attempted coup d’etat, international media framed the story as the massacre of innocent civilians comparable to the Tiananmen Square incident”. (page 38)

“The end result of Andijan is that the U.S. military lost its base in Uzbekistan , a major setback for essential intelligence and counterterrorism work. No less significant, the West lost whatever possibility it previously had to influence the Uzbek government to reform or open up the system. Its precipitous condemnation of the government’s actions, without corresponding attention to the insurgents, effectively discredited whatever reformist currents had existed earlier within the Uzbek government. Instead, Uzbekistan now leans on Russian and Chinese guidance, which gives carte blanche to the most repressive forces within the Uzbek government. Indeed, the pro-Western liberal forces that had slowly strengthened their positions within the Uzbek elite over that past decade have now been almost completely purged and marginalized.” (page 39)


There is no doubt that persecution against Uzbekistan ‘s Protestant Church has escalated since the May 2005 Andijan incident. And it is clear that the US can no longer influence Uzbek policy concerning religious liberty, as the US , a former ally, is now an enemy.

Furthermore, the Islamists are emboldened by the fact that the West is more interested in the prison conditions and civil liberties of radical Islamists (HRW calls this “independent Islam”) than in the terror they inflict and the repression and persecution they intend. And the Uzbek government is emboldened by SCO support to repress anything it wants to r epress in any way it wants to repress it.

A new wave of serious persecution may be just beginning.