May 15, 2012 Helsinki Commission Briefing on Political Prisoners in Central Asia
Written Statement on Religious Prisoners
Catherine Cosman, Senior Policy Adviser,
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
I’d like to thank the Helsinki Commission for the opportunity to speak today about the thousands of religious prisoners in Central Asia. Publicly highlighting their situation in Congress is important and we welcome it. We should not lose sight of the human tragedies behind the prisoner statistics. Most of these people have been unjustly imprisoned and often times abused if not tortured. Shining a light on their situation hopefully will result in their release, and if not, at least in an improvement in their conditions.
As mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the Commission in March 2012 recommended that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan be designated by the U.S. government as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) due to their systematic abuse of international obligations to respect freedom of religion or belief. Uzbekistan was designated a CPC by the State Department in 2006 and continues to have that status, while Turkmenistan and Tajikistan do not. I am going to focus on these three countries today, but have included background largely drawn from our materials, the State Department, Forum 18 and the International Crisis Group on how repressive Kazakh and Kyrgyz laws have impacted religious and other communities and individuals.
Uzbek religion law imposes major hurdles for the registration of religious groups and criminalizes legitimate activities of unregistered groups. The law also bans the production and distribution of unofficial religious publications; prohibits minors from participating in religious organizations; and forbids the wearing of religious clothing in public by anyone other than clerics. Any unregistered religious congregation is liable to massive fines and police raids, as well as threats or use of physical violence, detention and arrest.
Over the past decade, at least 5,000 individuals reportedly have been imprisoned in Uzbekistan (sometimes in psychiatric hospitals), for terms of up to 20 years due to their religious affiliations or beliefs. Many were imprisoned because they reject state control over religion or because the Uzbek government claims they are associated with groups it has banned as extremist. According to human rights advocates, however, the only “crime” of many of these individuals is the independent practice and intensive study of Islam.
Criminal convictions in Uzbekistan are based almost entirely on confessions, often gained through torture. Human rights organizations report that many detainees in Uzbekistan were arrested for, possessing the literature of a banned organization. Once arrested, they often are denied access to a lawyer, or are held incommunicado for weeks or months.
Uzbek authorities also often refuse to release religious prisoners at the end of their terms. Instead, prison authorities extend inmates’ terms by accusing them, without judicial review, of new crimes or minor infractions of prison regulations.
In 2011, the Ezgulik human rights group documented the alleged torture of female detainees, including many imprisoned due to their religious beliefs. Not only is sexual violence common, but the “standard” torture methods increasingly also are being applied to female detainees. In 2008, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) confirmed numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations of the use of torture, often before formal charges are brought and often to extract confessions to be used in criminal proceedings.
Many of those imprisoned or detained on religion-related charges are treated very harshly in Uzbek prisons. Reportedly, prisoners who pray or observe Muslim religious festivals are tortured to force them to renounce their religious or political views. Torture remains endemic in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts, and reportedly includes the threat or use of physical violence, rape, and the use of gas masks to block victims’ air supply.
Included for submission in the briefing record is the 2012 USCIRF Annual Report list of 65 individuals jailed for their religious beliefs or activities in Uzbekistan in the past year.
The Uzbek government does not consider repression of persons or groups suspected of extremism to be an issue of religious freedom, but rather prevention of armed resistance. Uzbekistan does face security threats including from groups which advocate or commit violence in the name of religion. Terrorist bombings have occurred. Nevertheless, the Uzbek government’s policies are highly problematic, since they lack due process guarantees, are based on the arbitrary application of vague anti-extremism laws against religious adherents and others who pose no credible threat to security. These abusive policies create future grievances with the next generation, and with no way to peacefully protest, has the effect of pushing more individuals towards violent activity.
Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), or the Islamic Party of Liberation, is an international, secretive, radical Sunni Muslim political movement. HT is active in 40 countries, but its political emphasis varies somewhat in individual countries. While HT is not known to have engaged in violence, its literature suggests that it might resort to armed action. The group, which is banned in Uzbekistan and most Muslim countries, calls for a worldwide Islamic caliphate to replace existing governments and for the imposition of an extremist interpretation of Islamic law. HT literature expresses virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Western views. Nevertheless, a wide spectrum of observers has noted that the Uzbek government’s prosecution of HT members is mainly motivated by the group’s political activity and there was no evidence presented that individual defendants were involved in or advocated violence.
Alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that is banned in Uzbekistan, are believed to comprise most of the political prisoners, although arrests of alleged HT members in Uzbekistan appear to have decreased since 2008. but often they are imprisoned,without evidence of violence or that the accused had perpetrated or advocated violence. Many of those arrested claim they are falsely accused of HT membership. Some arrests follow alleged, or planted, possession of HT literature.
The Uzbek government also has repressed and prosecuted members of Akromiya (or Akromiylar) since 1997, even though experts view it as a non-violent group based on the 1992 writings of imprisoned Uzbek mathematics teacher, Akram Yuldashev. The charges against the 23 businessmen on trial in Andijon included alleged membership in Akromiya.
Another group prohibited in Uzbekistan, Tabligh Jamaat, is an Islamic missionary group which began in South Asia. In 2011, a group of 17 alleged Tabligh Jamaat members were convicted in one trial, the first time such a large number of alleged members of this group stood trial.
Particularly since 2008, the Uzbek government has imprisoned alleged members of the Nur group, which it banned in 2000, although some question if this group even exists. Nur refers to those who read the works of Said Nursi, a Turkish mullah whose books were in wide circulation in the 1990’s. Nursi followers are not known to be linked to violence. In recent years, some 141 Nur members were sentenced to terms ranging from six to 12 years. For example, in May 2010, the Fergana Regional Criminal Court ten Nur followers were given terms ranging from five to eight years: Suhrob Zokirov was imprisoned for eight years; Islom Alikulov for seven years; Islom Manopov, Alisher Karimov, Farhod Sarymsokov, Botyr Sheraliyev and Kudrat Sultonov for six years; and Nosyr Mamazhanov, Muhammad Yarmatov and Ramzhon Abdukodyrov for five years and two months.
In December 2010, 18 Muslims were jailed for “membership in an extremist group” for belonging to Shohidiya, an Islamic religious movement which follows the Qur’an but not the hadith. Nasibullo Karimov, the movement’s leader, received a nine-year sentence.
The Uzbek authorities also have adopted repressive measures against entire families on charges of alleged religious extremism, including the sons of human rights activist, Akhmadjan Madmarov, from Margilan in the Ferghana valley, with whom USCIRF met in 2004. In 2007, Uzbek authorities extended by 16 and one-half years the prison term of Madmarov’s son, Habibullah, for his alleged role in a supposed extremist conspiracy. One of Madmarov’s sons was released on parole in 2008 after his seven-year term ended, but another son and two nephews remain in prison.
Reports continued in 2011 from Uzbek human rights groups about the official Uzbek campaign against Muslims alleged to have violated religion laws. In April 2010 three women, including Mehriniso Hamdamova, received terms of up to seven years for threatening the constitutional order, public security, and public order; they had provided private religious instruction of girls. Mehriniso Hamdamova, a teacher at an official women’s religion course at Karshi’s Kuk Gumbaz Mosque, was sentenced to seven years in a prison camp; her sister Zulkhumor Hamdamova and their relative Shahlo Rakhmonova each received six and a half year terms.
The Uzbek government also has imprisoned Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses for extremism and illegal religious activity. Pentecostal pastor Dmitri Shestakov from the city of Andijon was sentenced to a four-year term in a closed labor colony in 2007. Released in January 2011 after serving his full sentence, he is still under police surveillance.
Three Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently imprisoned: Olim Turaev,Abdubannob Ahmedov, and Sergey Ivanov. In 2011, the three Jehovah’s Witnesses prisoners were told by a prison official that if they did not renounce their faith, they would not be released at the end of their terms. Turaev and Ivanov will likely face new trials, with possible new five-year terms, for allegedly disobeying prison orders.
Also troubling are attempts by suspected Uzbek agents to attack religious leaders abroad. Obidkhon Qori Nazarov is known for his defense of religious freedom and condemnation of violence, was the imam of a Tashkent mosque until 1996. Two years later, Nazarov faced criminal charges, which Uzbek human rights activists say were fabricated. He fled to Kazakhstan and in 2006 Sweden granted him political asylum. On February 22, 2012 Nazarov was shot in Sweden; many believe that the Uzbek government is responsible for the attempt on his life, and some Nazarov followers have also been threatened.
In early 2010, a popular young Muslim journalist, Hairulla Khamidov, was arrested in Tashkent and charged with extremism. A police search of his home found recorded sermons by imam Nazarov. In May 2010, Khamidov received a six-year prison camp sentence.
It is very difficult to assess the full dimensions of human rights issues in Turkmenistan due to the Turkmen government’s stranglehold on information about the country.
Since becoming president in early 2007, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has not undertaken reform of the country’s oppressive laws. On the eve of our 2007 visit to Turkmenistan, the president ordered the release of 11 political prisoners. In addition, the President released Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, the country’s former chief mufti, on whose behalf the Commission had worked for several years. While the president has limited the former President Niyazov’s personality cult, he is now instituting his own cult at the center of state ideology.
Turkmen law has sets intrusive registration rules and bans activity by unregistered religious organizations. It forbids worship in private homes and the public wearing of religious garb except by religious leaders; requires that the government be informed of all foreign financial support and places severe restrictions on religious education. Conscientious objection to military service is not allowed and no provision of an alternative service regime is provided. These laws result in the imprisonment of those who wish to peacefully and freely practice their faith.
According to the International Crisis Group, Turkmenistan has one of the world’s highest prisoner-to-population ratios. A June 2011 report by the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) on Turkmenistan concluded that reports of torture are “numerous and consistent” and “there appears to be a climate of impunity resulting in the lack of meaningful disciplinary action or criminal prosecution against persons of authority accused of [torture].” Last year, three religious prisoners who reportedly were in the Seydi prison camp -- where most religious prisoners are held -- reported that solitary confinement and severe beatings by guards were “routine.”
In recent years, members of religious communities, including Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as a Hare Krishna adherent, have been imprisoned or sent into internal exile due to their religious convictions. Nurmuhamed Agaev, a former Muslim prayer leader, remains at the closed psychiatric hospital in the Lebap Region, where reportedly he is subject to forcible drug treatment. Islamic cleric Shiri Geldimuradov died in prison under unexplained circumstances in July 2010. Geldimuradov, 73, was arrested in April 2010 along with his three sons Muhammed, Abdullah, and Abdulhay. A fourth son, Abdulmejid, was sentenced to three years in prison in February 2010 for “misusing urban water resources.” An anonymous January 2012 message to Radio Liberty’s Turkmen Service claimed that an unnamed Muslim man was imprisoned the previous year for distributing religious audio and video discs; the government reportedly charged him with distributing pornography.
In October 2010, Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev of the unregistered Peace to the World Protestant Church in Mary was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on charges of swindling, which his family and church members refuted in court. He was held at the notorious Seydi prison camp, where he was put in a cell with an inmate with tuberculosis. The court ordered that Nurliev be given “forcible medical treatment to wean him off his narcotic dependency,” and he reportedly was denied his diabetes medication and a Bible. Nearly 18 months after his arrest, Nurliev was released on February 18, 2012 along with about 230 prisoners, Forum 18 reported, but he must still report regularly to the police.
Pastor Nurliev expressed concern over several Muslim prisoners in Seydi who may have been imprisoned for peaceful religious activity, including Musa (last name unknown), a young Muslim from Ashgabat who reportedly received a four-year sentence for teaching the Qur’an to children. Pastor Nurliev also said the former chief imam of Mary Region, Muhammed-Rahim Muhammedov, remains in the Seydi camp for allegedly resisting the authorities.
In January 2012, Jehovah’s Witness Vladimir Nuryllayev was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at a secret trial in Ashgabat on criminal charges of spreading pornography, which his community strongly denies.
As in neighboring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has been implicated in attempts to silence dissent among émigrés and activists whom we have met. In October 2010, Farid Tuhbatullin, exiled head of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, said that he learned that the Turkmen Ministry of Security (MNB) planned an “accidental” attack on him in Vienna. Since then, despite police protection, Tuhbatullin has had to change his country of residence. Within Turkmenistan, in January 2012, Turkmen civil society activist Natalya Shabunts, a critic of the official Turkmen religious freedom record, after she gave a RFE/RL interview found a bloody sheep’s head outside her home in Ashgabat.
Current Turkmen law has no civilian alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as it did until 1995. At present there are five known Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan, and one who is serving a suspended prison sentence. Zafar Abdullaev was given the maximum two-year prison term on March 6, 2012 at Dashoguz City Court, according to Forum 18. He had already served a two-year suspended sentence on the same charges. The four others are: Sunet Japbarov, 18 months, Turkmenabad Court, December 2010; Matkarim Aminov, 18 months, Dashoguz Court, December 2010; Dovran Matyakubov, 18 months, Dashoguz Court, December 2010; and Mahmud Hudaybergenov, 2 years, Dashoguz Court, August 2011. Three who were sentenced in December 2010 are due to complete their sentences in June 2012. All four are in the Seydi labor camp where some prisoners have been subjected to psychiatric abuse. Ashgabad-based Jehovah's Witness Akmurad Nurjanov, who was given a one-year suspended sentence in February 2012.
USCIRF recommended for the first time in 2012 that Tajikistan be designated a “country of particular concern” due in part to repressive new laws which have resulted in possibly the worst legal climate for freedom of religion or belief in Central Asia. Tajik law places major administrative hurdles on all religious groups and deems illegal non-violent unregistered religious groups. A 2011 law bans almost all participation by children in religious activities.
The 2009 law prohibits private religious education and requires state permission for an institution or organization to provide religious instruction. It also bans proselytism and requires prior official approval for religious organizations to invite foreigners into the country or attend religious conferences outside the country. It requires the government to approve the content and “appropriate quantities”of all published or imported religious literature and religious communities must pay for this “service.” The law singles out mosques for very strict regulation and Muslim worship is limited to mosques, homes, and cemeteries and is not allowed in places of work or on streets around mosques.
Several articles of Tajikistan’s Criminal Code penalize extremist, terrorist, or revolutionary activities without requiring acts that involve violence or incitement to imminent violence. However, the criminal code does not define “extremist religious” study or teaching. These overly broad provisions permit Tajik authorities to apply these laws against peaceful religious activity in an arbitrary and sweeping fashion or to penalize other non-violent activities which the government claims are prohibited.
Tajikistan has banned HT and 12 other organizations and has reportedly prosecuted and imprisoned over 500 people for alleged HT membership in the past 10 years, according to the AFP news agency. The acting chief prosecutor of the northern Sughd province said in early 2012 that 135 individuals had been arrested in 2011 on charges of membership in religious extremist groups; 14 criminal proceedings have been initiated. Observers have noted that the Tajik government’s prosecution of alleged HT members seems mainly motivated by their political activity. Further, the Tajik government has reportedly not presented proof that defendants were involved in or advocated violence during trials of HT members, which generally lacked due process guarantees. The government of Tajikistan has been criticized, by the UN Committee against Torture, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for its widespread use of torture against prisoners.
A court in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd Province sentenced seven individuals in February 2012 to between three and five years imprisonment for their alleged membership in Tabligh Jamaat. In 2010, Tajik courts jailed at least 59 people for terms of three to eight years. According to Forum 18, those imprisoned include brothers Igbolsho, Amirali and Murodali Davlatov, Nosir Rakhimov, Doniyor Khashimov, Saynurdin Kalugshoyev, Churabek Saidzoda, Jamshed Boyakov, Mahkamjon Azizov, Umarjon Azizov, Nasrullo Khisomov, Talabsho Abdusamadov, Abdumanon Sattorov, Khudaydod Alnazarov, Churakhon Mirzoyev, Toirjon Samadov, and Abduvali Murodov. Tajik officials claimed that the Supreme Court banned the group as extremist in 2006, but two Supreme Court officials said in May 2009 that they were not aware of this ban.
The Tajik Supreme Court banned the Salafi school of Islam in February 2009, although no criminal acts have been linked to followers of Salafism in Tajikistan. In January 2010, seven individuals were sentenced to prison terms of from five to seven years for membership in the Salafi movement, according to the State Department.
In recent years, the Tajik government has also brought extremism charges against journalists who have been critical of official religion policies.
Conditions for religious freedom have declined sharply in Kazakhstan in recent years. In October 2011, President Nazarbaev signed two new laws regarding freedom of religion or belief. The laws garnered strong criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which Kazakhstan chaired in 2010, as well as from domestic civil society and religious communities.
The restrictive 2011 Kazakh religion law sets up a four-tiered registration system, bans unregistered religious activity, imposes compulsory religious censorship, and requires central and local government approval to build or open new places of worship. All registered religious organizations must re-register under strict new criteria or face liquidation by the courts. Despite official pressure on religious groups to halt activity until they re-register by the deadline of October 25, 2011, re-registration regulations have not been adopted. In early 2012, 579 small religious groups were stripped of registration. In February 2012, in the first known use of increased penalties, a leader of an unregistered Baptist community was fined 18 months of local wages (equivalent to U.S. $ 3,273). While registered religious organizations may teach their faith to their own members, only regional and national registered religious organizations can train clergy in officially-approved institutions.
Even before the new Kazakh religion law came into effect, police acted against disfavored religious groups. In October 2011, police raided a worship meeting of a registered Protestant church in Atyrau, due to the new requirement that restricts activity to its legal address. Also in October, Almaty authorities detained Jehovah’s Witnesses because of the new ban on public missionary activity. In November 2011, Kazakh officials closed mosques, churches, and Muslim and Russian Orthodox prayer rooms in prisons and social care institutions, due to a new ban on religious activity in state institutions. The regional Agency for Religious Affairs ordered the independent but registered Abai District Mosque in the Karaganda region to re-register by February 14 or face closure. The semi-official Muslim Board issued a fatwa declaring Almaty’s small Ahmadi community “infidels.” The Ahmadi mosque in Almaty and the Grace Presbyterian Church near Turkestan are being challenged by local prosecutor’s offices on whether they can be used as places of worship.
Registered religious community branches affiliated with Central Grace Presbyterian Church in Karaganda and the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Astana were officially warned to halt activity and return their registration certificates. The head of Kazakhstan’s registered Baptist Union told Forum 18 that across the country their small communities had received similar warnings. The Church of Scientology reported two members were found guilty for unregistered religious activity and police raided church properties. Kazakhstan’s Agency of Religious Affairs actively supports “anti-sect centers,” which promote intolerance against disfavored religious communities.
Reportedly, in 2011 local officials in the Zhambyl region detained members of the Tablighi Jama'at for illegal missionary activities by an unregistered movement. In June 2011, the Akmola Oblast court confirmed the sentence of Valeriy Tverdokhlebov to four years in prison for inciting social, national, tribal, and religious hatred, and for propagating terrorism. Tverdokhlebov, who follows Salafi Islam, maintained to the court that he confessed under torture, the State Department reported.
To investigate an alleged treason case against the leaders of Grace Presbyterian Church, the Kazakh government has conducted raids, brief detentions, and a tax evasion trial. According to a Kazakh security police report, the Zhambyl Grace Church threatened national security because it promotes pro-American ideology and discredits authorities. By late 2011, no church officials had been charged with treason, but the State Department reported there is alarm at the investigation.
The Kyrgyz constitution protects religious freedom, but laws and policies restrict religious freedom and the government generally enforced these restrictions, according to the State Department in September 2011. The then-interim Kyrgyz government continued restricting the activities of Muslim groups it viewed as “extremist.”
The 2009 Religion Law affirms the equality of all religions and religious organizations, it bans children in religious organizations, and “illegal missionary activity.” While the law allows religious organizations to produce, import, export, and distribute religious materials, they must be examined by state experts. The law also bans distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations, or at households, schools, and other institutions.The Religion Law requires that all religious organizations, including schools, register with the State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA), which can deny or postpone registration if it believes the proposed activities of that group are not religious. Unregistered religious organizations were prohibited from actions such as renting space and holding religious services, although many held regular services without government interference. During an October 2011 Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council, however, the interim Kyrgyz government agreed to review the religion law to ensure that it did not infringe on religious freedom.
Registration requirements include at least 200 adult citizen members, and an application form, organizational charter, minutes of an institutional meeting, and a list of founding members to SCRA for review. SCRA recommended rejection when a religious organization did not comply with the law or was considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. Applicants whose registration was denied may reapply and may appeal to the courts or apply for legal status through the Justice Ministry.
The government generally enforced restrictions on religious freedom vigorously. The 2009 Religion Law includes provisions that further restricted religious freedom. The government continued to restrict the activities of Muslim groups it considered threats to security, as well as other law-abiding religious groups.
In order to protest poor prison conditions, over 1,000 prison inmates in Kyrgyzstan are reported to have sewn their mouths shut in early 2012.
Batken Regional Court in southern Kyrgyzstan has overturned seven-year prison terms imposed on two cousins who are Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 reported in June 2011. But the Court rejected the two men's appeal, therefore Iskandar Kambarov and Jonibek Nosirov still face possible prosecution. The two men had been found guilty of having two discs which police say were from Hizb ut-Tahrir, but the defendents claim the discs were planted on them. Batken Regional Court also ordered that "in order to remedy the gaps in the investigation process" the case should be sent for further investigation, and ordered that the two cousins should pay costs.
Central Asia faces genuine security concerns due to serious threats from groups which advocate or perpetrate violence in the name of religion and from terrorist groups based in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the security policies of the Central Asian governments run the risk of creating the very security problems they are supposed to solve. In part this is because overly broad anti-extremism laws are used against non-violent religious adherents and others who pose no credible threat to security.
These harsh laws and policies also reflect the Soviet anti-religious bias of Central Asian governments, as they try to come to grips with societies increasingly drawn to religion. The impact of these anti-religious laws and po1icies is further heightened by corrupt and inept court systems, as well as a lack of due process guarantees. Once in prison, individuals are confronted with inept and corrupt institutions run along Soviet lines. Torture reportedly is often used to gain confessions which form the basis of convictions and maltreatment is all too often the norm in trying to maintain prison discipline.
I would also like to cite some key conclusions from a December 15, 2009 International Crisis Group briefing report, “Central Asia: Islamists in Prison.”
“The growing numbers of Islamists in prison [in Central Asia] mean that more inmates, often with a record of violence, are drawn into the Islamist ideological orbit. In the future they may apply these skills, either in prison or outside, to promotion of their new faith. Prisons need funding, advice, assistance and close attention – from foreign governments, concerned NGOs and international organizations.”
“The Central Asian crackdown on political Islam …is likely in fact to create more recruits for their combat teams… But ever longer sentences handed down to Islamic activists for relatively minor actions like political demonstrations – …risk [further] polarizing the Muslim community… It is not difficult to imagine… young unemployed males opting to join a revived [terrorist] Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) rather than the HT, as the sentences for participation in either movement are now roughly the same.”
“An energetic and tangible effort is [urgently] needed to improve living conditions, crack down on corruption and abuse of office, and launch a real dialogue with observant Muslims. At the moment the region’s leaders are only talking about the first two options and rejecting the third. In doing so, they are undermining their own position and their countries’ futures.”
In closing, we welcome the attention of the Helsinki Commission to the human rights issue of political prisoners. The security implications of such violations are clear, as issues of freedom of religion or belief are explicit or implicit factors in civil strife and violent extremism. The deteriorating religious freedom record in Central Asia, including the wide use of overbroad “extremism laws” against religious individuals and groups who have been accused but not been proven to be connected to violent acts, gives rise to serious concerns about future stability in that region.