As many as 10,000 people languish in Uzbek prisons for their faith. Once there, they are subjected to another injustice, a religious-freedom watchdog reported this week: They are often denied access to clergy and religious literature.
Oslo-based Forum 18 has collected new evidence that Uzbekistan's brutal penal system prevents prisoners of conscience, and those locked up on dubious extremism charges, from worshipping in prison.
Relatives of Muslim prisoners of conscience told Forum 18 that Muslims "cannot openly pray, or read any Muslim literature – even the Koran."
Forum 18 says that prisoners, both Muslims and Christians, are regularly denied visits by clergy. Even the state-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims and the state-friendly Russian Orthodox Church have limited access to prisons, while clergy from other denominations have virtually no access, the watchdog said.
An official from one recognized religious group, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that authorities did not allow his clergy to visit or conduct religious ceremonies in prisons. Though the Board of Muslims claimed to Freedom 18 that it has no problem accessing prisoners, it declined to specify when it had last visited any prisoners.
According to recent estimates by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Islam Karimov’s government has imprisoned "as many as 10,000 individuals" for their non-violent Islamic religious affiliations.
With foreign trade already under tight government control, Uzbekistan increased customs duties on a number of foodstuff imports from May 1.
The Novyy Vek newspaper reports that, according to a government resolution signed by President Islam Karimov last week, the import duty on meat products rose from 50 percent previously to 70 percent; on pasta it rose from 20 to 30 percent.
Tashkent, a major supplier of produce to CIS countries, slapped a 50 percent duty on imports of fruit and vegetables (up from 30 percent) and a duty ranging from 10 to 30 percent on fresh vegetables.
The duty on imported beer increased to 100 percent of declared customs value, up from 70 percent. The duty on imported cigarettes jumped from about $18 to $40 per 1,000 smokes.
The new taxes are probably attempts to reverse a trend by encouraging Uzbek shoppers to buy local. According to official figures from the State Statistics Committee, food imports increased by about 19.5 percent to $1.2 billion last year, while food exports fell by 55.9 percent to $884 million.
Food already makes up a substantial chunk of the average Uzbek household’s income. The Korzinka.uz chain of supermarkets prices domestic beef at about $8.50 per kilo and domestically produced sausages at between $6.20 and $8.60 per kilo (at the black-market exchange rate). The average monthly salary is believed to be about $200.
Her father is tough when it comes to religion, but it looks like Gulnara Karimova is now reaching out to Muslims. Could this be, some wonder, a bid to assert herself as an inclusive candidate to succeed her father, President Islam Karimov?
The Uzdaily.uz website reports that Karimova, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Mekhr Nuri (“Ray of Mercy”) foundation, awarded grants to 20 distinguished students from ten (officially sanctioned) Islamic educational establishments in Uzbekistan on May 4.
The ceremony was held in Bukhara Region as part of a folk art festival. The Directorate of Muslims, a state body, provided organizational assistance to Karimova’s charity, Uzdaily said. Uzdaily did not specify the size of the grants, but noted that Karimova pledged to improve infrastructure at Islamic institutions as well.
Embroiled in money-laundering and bribery investigations in Switzerland and Sweden, Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, seems to be spending a lot of her time in Uzbekistan lately. Some observers believe Karimova’s active public life at home, and on Twitter, in recent months is a sign of her growing presidential ambitions as her aging father’s health is questioned.
A little-known Las Vegas-based showman crowned Karimova the "Princess of Uzbekistan" in a recent PR stunt.
But as a potential leader Karimova would inherit the nasty consequences of her father's brutal policy toward followers of Islam.
Members of the U.S. Congress visit Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in February 2013 (photo: president.uz)
The bombing of the Boston marathon has appeared to whet the appetites of some members of Congress to increase cooperation with post-Soviet governments in taking a strong hand against the threat of Islamist radicals.The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on Friday, "Islamist Extremism in Chechnya: A Threat to the U.S. Homeland?" And it provided the opportunity for several members of Congress to tout not just greater security cooperation with Russia vis-a-vis Chechnya, but across the post-Soviet space.
In his opening statement, Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and chair of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, promoted the idea of closer security ties to Russia and Central Asia:
What outside forces have sought to transform the North Caucasus and Central Asia into a region of Muslin extremism which did not exist before?
Greater cooperation with Russia and the governments Central Asia should be explored in order to properly respond to this emerging threat. This part of the world is critical to the future of the human race. If it becomes dominated by a radical version of Islam, it will change the course of history in an extremely negative way.
Later in the hearing, Rohrabacher returned to a theme he is fond of, the notion that the Uzbekistan government's violations of human rights are necessary to maintain security there:
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world's most repressive dictatorships, came under harsh criticism from Western democracies during the latest Universal Periodic Review hearings at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. But likeminded authoritarian regimes came to their defense, praising the two for "progress" at improving their records in recent years.
The Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states, is examining the progress the two Central Asian countries have achieved since their first review in December 2008. Ahead of the hearings, Human Rights Watch called on the council "to expose and denounce the ongoing repression" in both countries and to exert pressure on them to "end abuses."
“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”
Karimov and Putin meet in Moscow (photo: Kremlin.ru)
When Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, visited Moscow earlier this month, was he trying to shore up his relations with the Kremlin at the expense of Washington? That seems to be the expert consensus that is emerging in the wake of the meeting between Karimov and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Russia's reaction to Karimov's growing ties with the U.S. generally oscillates between two poles: alarmism that Uzbekistan is falling into the Western geopolitical camp, and confidence that Karimov -- who has repeatedly and dramatically shifted his superpower allegiances -- will eventually return to Moscow's fold. On the eve of Karimov's visit, a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an alarmist:
The Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the situation. But Kommersant's sources in the Russian government admit that the situation worries Moscow. "The Uzbek authorities confirm their interest in strengthening military-technical cooperation with Russia, reassuring [Moscow] that there will not be any American military infrastructure on their territory," said Kommersant's source. "But with deliveries of Western weapons and equipment to Uzbekistan will come Western instructors and technicians, and then the establishment of a base is not far away."
And some commentators say that Karimov's goal in coming to Moscow was to assuage such fears. Russian analyst Andrei Grozin told CA-News that "the Uzbek side decided to dispel Russian concern regarding his excessively pro-American position":
U.S. officials have long expressed the hope that its web of military transport lines through Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, would eventually spur non-military trade as well. But what they probably didn't have in mind was that it would help in the transit of Afghanistan's most profitable export: opium. Nevertheless, that's what's happening on the newly built, CENTCOM-brokered railroad between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations. In a report (pdf), "Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment" by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, one of the key findings is that:
The rail network links a number of dry ports in Central Asia and plays a vital role in the region. In recent years, the Central Asian rail network has been extended to Afghanistan. Since this extension, several important heroin seizures have reportedly taken place along the network, suggesting that traffickers are abusing the lack of efficient law enforcement control along it.
(Yes, the report is from October 2012, but I only just came across it.)
That rail extension to Afghanistan, recall, has been a key project of U.S. military logisticians seeking to make the cargo route through Central Asia in and out of Afghanistan much smoother. As the report notes, "The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of the Northern Distribution Network." However, most of the recent drug seizures made on Uzbekistan's rail network have been on trains that originated in Tajikistan, rather than in Afghanistan, the report says:
Police in authoritarian Uzbekistan’s capital are often accused of taking a hard line on fun. This week they’re living up to the reputation.
Citing the hazard bicycles pose to traffic, Tashkent police have launched a campaign to seize bicycles from residents and fine cyclists, according to the private Novyy Vek newspaper.
Novyy Vek reported on April 23 that cyclists were facing fines while bicycle shops have been advised to close down.
The campaign, which began April 21, is linked to the growing number of traffic accidents involving cyclists, the newspaper quotes a police officer as saying. Uzbekistan registered about 3.3 million traffic violations between January and November 2012, according to Interior Ministry figures, but numbers involving bicycles are not available.
One businessman who rents out bicycles told the newspaper that police had seized bikes from clients who were having a chat on the pavement outside his shop. "Each of them was fined 26,500 sums [about $9 at the black-market rate] for unknown reasons,” he said.
Tashkent authorities banned motorcycles and scooters in 2005 because they were "much more appropriate for [carrying out] an assassination than cars," an Interior Ministry official was quoted as saying at the time.
The organizers of a charity marathon in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, have cancelled the event, citing unspecified security threats.
On April 22, several organizations that have been linked in the past to the president’s flamboyant daughter, Gulnara Karimova, said in a joint statement, posted on her organization’s website, that the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure would be postponed and replaced with a charity concert on April 27 in support of "those who have suffered” from recent violence in Boston.
The decision was prompted by security concerns in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings last week, the statement explains.
It is common for authorities in Uzbekistan to cite terrorist attacks abroad as a reason for beefing up security at home. That may make sense. But Uzbek authorities often are also accused of exaggerating threats to justify rounding up suspected dissidents and critics, especially practicing Muslims (which, analysts fear, simply drives believers underground and possibly into the arms of radicals).
"The events in Boston have changed the consciousness of many people," the statement from Karimova’s Fund Forum said, adding that over 222,000 people have taken part in her organization’s charity runs and football matches across Uzbekistan this year. The events were expected to culminate in the charity marathon on April 28.
It's unclear if Karimova, who records under the stagename Googoosha, will perform at the charity concert.
Another Russian mobile giant came under attack in Uzbekistan this week.
Uzmetronom, a website that frequently features leaks and opinions from well-placed sources, reports that Beeline subscribers in Uzbekistan have been experiencing "serious difficulties" with the company’s connection over the past couple of days.
That wouldn’t normally be strange, except that last summer another Russian telecoms firm was forcibly shutdown in what looked like a state-orchestrated corporate raid. At the time, authorities accused MTS’s local subsidiary, O’zdunrobita, of violating equipment-usage terms and of tax evasion. When the plug was pulled on July 17, some 9.5 million customers were forced to flee to other carriers.
Now this, from a website believed to have close ties to the Uzbek security services: "[Beeline] telephones are either showing the complete absence of a signal, even in areas where it has always been stable, or the connection is such that it is impossible to comprehend the words of the interlocutor," Uzmetronom reported on April 18.
Uzmetronom says Beeline’s "vaunted" 3G services have stopped working outside Tashkent altogether, while the company is keeping "total silence" about the problems and whatever actions it has taken to solve them. "Beeline seems to understand perfectly that after the liquidation of MTS the people of Uzbekistan practically have no choice.”