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.
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.”
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.”
The birds didn’t get far, the stunt prompted a lot of jokes, and the selection of Uzbekistan’s border region abutting Afghanistan as the cranes’ ideal wintering ground didn’t go down well in Tashkent.
Conservationists from Flight of Hope – the organization Putin promoted with his unforgettable stunt – chose the unpopulated banks of the Amu Darya river because it is protected, in essence, like a reserve.
But Tashkent believes the birds should be guided elsewhere because Uzbek border guards often burn vegetation in the area for better visibility, the BBC Russian Service said on April 12.
After Putin’s flying lesson, the Siberian cranes were expected to fly to Uzbekistan with gray cranes from western Siberia, but, in the end, they spent the winter in Russia due to early snowfall.
Some hope Uzbek President Islam Karimov's upbeat visit to Moscow this week might lead to some international cooperation on behalf of the cranes.
The two presidents did not address the issue publicly when they met on April 15, but a Flight of Hope representative told the BBC Russian service days before Karimov’s visit that the Russian president promised to discuss the birds’ fate with his counterpart. The two sides also signed a number of agreements during and before the visit, including on environmental protection.
Putin and Karimov on April 15. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
Amid ongoing rumors about his frail health, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov popped up in Moscow today, where he publicly glossed over strained ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The fight against terrorism and the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan topped the two leaders’ agenda, according to the Kremlin's press service.
Tashkent withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization last summer for the second time. Since then, Moscow's promises of military aid to Uzbekistan’s regional rivals – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and its pledges of support and investment for grand hydropower projects in those upstream countries have vexed Tashkent. Meanwhile, Washington's promises to gift Tashkent some Afghanistan leftovers in return for facilitating the pullout have alarmed Moscow.
Yet whatever was said about these delicate topics behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, it was all smiles following the April 15 talks. Praising economic and humanitarian collaboration, Putin told journalists that security cooperation in light of the NATO pullout from Afghanistan was paramount to bilateral relations.
We have, of course, discussed the situation in Central Asia in detail and talked about problems associated with the pullout of international coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014. We have agreed to continue to follow this topic attentively and to coordinate possible joint steps. By this we mean providing necessary assistance to the Afghan leadership regarding the stabilization of the military and political situation and the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and extremism. […] I stress: Close interaction with Tashkent on a wide range of aspects will be continued.
Broadening their campaign to crackdown on unofficial religious activities, police in Uzbekistan have carried out surprise raids on unregistered Protestant churches and private homes in recent months, according to the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18.
Homes of Protestant Christians from various Churches across Uzbekistan were raided in February and March, Forum 18 News Service has learned. In at least two cases, courts subsequently handed down huge fines. After a late March raid and fine on a Protestant couple in the capital Tashkent, a Protestant who knows them complained that the raiding authorities produced no warrants, no trial was held and that the fines given were "unbelievably high". "The authorities know where believers live and know that they have Christian literature in their homes," the Protestant – who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals – told Forum 18. "By raiding their homes the authorities harass believers and are trying to wear them down by the fines."
Religious believers' homes are also known to have been raided in Samarkand in central Uzbekistan and in Nukus, capital of the north-western autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. Courts in both cities fined the believers and confiscated their Christian literature and other materials.
All religious literature of any kind in Uzbekistan is under tight state censorship.
In one of the raids, in Tashkent on March 18, a local police officer and seven "officials in plain-clothes" raided an apartment where an ethnic Uzbek Protestant couple was living temporarily.