Violations of Religious Freedom Widespread in Uzbekistan
A Special Report by ICC
06/24/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Uzbekistan’s authoritarian regime remains relentless in its mistreatment of Christians, with widespread abuses of religious freedom ranging from illegal raids to brutal torture.
On 11 May, customs officials at Gisht-Kuprik stopped four Baptists from officially registered churches, while they were crossing from Kazakhstan into Uzbekistan. Two of them were detained for seven and a half hours, and the others were detained for eleven and a half hours.
Customs officials opened cases against the Baptists under the administrative violation, “Non-declaration or inaccurate declaration of goods transported through the customs border.” The possible punishments for the Baptists are fines between five and 10 times the minimum monthly salary, along with the customary confiscation of goods.
A Bible, two books of Baptist hymns, five copies of Baptist magazines, two Baptist Calendars, seven DVDs and CDs, 15 bookmarks, 30 brochures, and two notebooks with personal notes were confiscated from them and sent for “expert analysis” by the state Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent.
On 14 March, police raided the home of Naziya Ziyatdinova, a 76 year old woman with Parkinson’s disease, describing the intrusion as an “Anti-terror-cleansing.” She did not open the door immediately because officials banged on the door and shouted so loudly, causing the neighbors to gather and watch. One of the officials then broke into the flat by climbing through a second floor window.
Without a search warrant, they turned everything upside down. They confiscated her Bible, Christian books and DVD discs, ordering them to be destroyed. For her “crime,” Ziyatdinova was fined 10 times the minimum monthly salary, a significant amount for someone who lives on a very small pension. Local Protestants told Forum 18 News that the officials “acted like bandits.” “Why should they enter the home of a seriously ill peaceful person through a window?” they asked.
Christians in Uzbekistan are accustomed to raids, threats, fines, literature confiscations, arbitrary arrests, court-ordered destruction of religious literature and various restrictions of religious and civil liberties.
“Uzbekistan’s human rights record is atrocious. Torture is endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities intensified their crackdown on civil society activists, opposition members, and journalists. Muslims and Christians who practice their religion outside strict state controls are persecuted, and freedom of expression is severely limited,” according to Human Rights Watch.
As Corey Bailey, Regional Manager for Central Asia with International Christian Concern says, “Religious minorities, including Christians, should have the right to own religious literature and follow their beliefs without fear of trumped-up charges, illegal raids and fines. What they read, and how many copies of any book they have in their home, should not be regulated by the government.”
But Uzbekistan’s human rights violations go well beyond intrusions and fines. In an oft-repeated incident in 2010, female religious believers detained during a police raid, faced threats of their clothes being forcibly removed, torture with electricity and pictures made public of them being raped by male criminals, according to Forum News 18.
Officials have been known to act on threats of torture, which is often used against those arrested for exercising their religious freedom – including Muslims, Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some incidents have led to severe beatings leading to a concussion, accompanied by police pressure on hospitals to avoid treatment of victims.
In 2012, Jehovah’s Witness Paediatrician, Gulchehra Abdullayeva, complained to four Uzbek state agencies and the United Nations over police torture she had to endure. She claimed that officers made her stand facing a wall for four hours with no food or water in the summer heat. Then they placed a gas mask over her head and blocked the air supply. “Putting on a gas mask from which they pump out the air is not only degrading, but amounts to torture,” Abdullayeva noted in her complaints to Uzbek official bodies seen by Forum 18 News Service.
Uzbekistan’s habitual mistreatment of Christians is common among authoritarian states, which generally regard religion with suspicion and distaste. The country’s first President, Islam Karimov, has been ruling since 1989, establishing a tough authoritarian regime that severely limits civil liberties and restricts religious freedom in the name of anti-extremist action and to protect ethnic identity.
But Uzbekistan’s targeting of the Christian minority is desperately misguided and counter-productive. Neither the Christian community is a threat to national security, nor do any of its efforts undermine the Uzbek identity. Uzbekistan cannot chart its future course according to its history of persecuting Christians. The nation needs to make urgent reforms to its religious laws to create a civil society, where each person has the freedom to religious belief and practice. There lies its greater challenge and greatest opportunity.