Any day now, the State Department will announce its long-awaited annual list of "countries of particular concern" that have egregiously violated the right to freedom of religious belief and other basic human rights.
Each year, Uzbekistan has been included on the list, due to its heavy suppression of independent religious activity and the incarceration of an estimated 5,500 or more mainly Muslim religious prisoners, many of whom have been tortured in detention and tried behind closed doors without adequate legal defense. (The other countries in the list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.)
In the past, the list was announced at the same time as the release of the State Department's report on International Religious Freedom in November, but last year at that time, Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said the list would be announced "in a couple of months."
It was expected that the list might then be publicized around the same time as the release of the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which came out somewhat late this year in April -- but without the CPC list.
Now officials have been saying that the list will appear "very soon."
Long-time observers of the Country Reports have been dismayed to see that this year in the reports, the section on religious freedom that used to be incorporated along with the other human rights has now been removed. In its place is a link re-directing the reader to the State Department's separate International Religious Freedom report. While the Country Reports do refer to some cases, such as the testimony of 12 of 25 defendants charged with religious extremism in Jizzakh who reported that they were tortured in pretrial detention facilities (a claim denied by the Uzbek government), there is concern that decoupling the issue of religious freedom from the main country report will downgrade its importance.
Even if Uzbekistan is recognized again as a CPC, just as in the past, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will likely recommend a waiver, due to the overriding concerns of the US-Uzbek relationship, which largely revolve around Tashkent's cooperation with the Northern Distribution Network to deliver supplies to soldiers in Afghanistan.
The United States should use the CPC designation of Uzbekistan to press for serious reforms. The current waiver of any sanctions against Uzbek officials sends the wrong message of impunity for lethal actions in Andijan and mass violations of religious freedom. Until conditions improve, real sanctions should be imposed.
Meanwhile, the list of these religious prisoners has only grown, as hundreds more have been arrested in the last year, and tried in large batches of a dozen or more at a time. Very little is known about these trials, and the few human rights groups that try to get information are themselves harassed.
Recently, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported rumors that the Uzbek government might be considering including the religious prisoners in the state amnesty planned in connection with the celebration of Uzbekistan's 20th anniversary of independent, September 1. The rumors gained credence because policemen who routinely visit the relatives of such prisoners to keep tabs on them started talking about a possible amnesty, and then independently, a number of prisoners visited in separate facilities also began repeating the same rumor.