the Disillusioned kid: What's Happening in Uzbekistan?
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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

What's Happening in Uzbekistan?

Despite its increasing importance in international relations, people know surprisingly little about Central Asia. Most people could fit everything they know about the region, let alone any of the countries in it, on the back of a postage stamp. To be fair I'm as guilty of this as the next guy, although I do try and keep up with what's going on in Uzbekistan, largely because of its relatively close links to the west. The picture I have of Uzbekistan is probably seriously distorted by the fact that much of what qualifies as being newsworthy about the place will generally emphasise the negative. The human interest stories don't get much beyond the country's borders. Nonetheless there is plenty to be negative about.

The ruling regime of Islam Karimov is a brutal dictatorship. Karimov learnt his trade in the days of the Soviet Union, rising to power as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan in 1989 and was named president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. After the country achieved independence in 1991, Karimov declared himself President following presidential elections which Human Rights Watch describe as "seriously marred". In 1995 he extended his term in power through a plebiscite and was reelected for what should have been his final term in 2000. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) wouldn't even send observers to that election having decided there was no chance of a free election. They noted it "was neither free nor fair and offered Uzbekistan's voters no true choice." Karimov retorted, "The OSCE focuses only on establishment of democracy, the protection of human rights and the freedom of the press. I am now questioning these values," which says it all really. A referendum in 2002 extended Karimov's presidency until 2007 by amending the constitution to allow 7 year terms.

So democracy in the country isn't so healthy. Unfortunately Karimov's failure in this regard is matched by his atrocious human rights record. Perhaps on of the clearest examples of this is the state of religious freedom in the country. The treatment of Muslims (who make up 90% of the population) has been particularly harsh. This stems in large part from Karimov's concerns about the threat from Islamic extremists. Certainly groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have sought to overthrow the regime, but it has been argued by many commentators (including myself) that his response has only exacerbated the problem. In 1998 he argued that Islamic extremists "must be shot in the forehead! If necessary, I'll shoot them myself?!" While it is unclear how many supposed extremists (often described as "Wahhabists") have been shot in the head, human rights organisation suggest that 7,000 are being held as prisoners, many of them subject to tortures including beatings, having needles driven under their fingernails, being left standing in freezing water for a fortnight and even boiling to death.

The clergy of the Muslim faith are also, unlike their counterparts from other faiths, completely under state control. Forum 18 (a group seeking to promote the universal application of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees religious freedom) note, "The leadership of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims is virtually an agency of state authority." They also comment that the current arrangement is merely an imitation of the one which operated in the days of the USSR "when religious communities were formally separated from the state, but in fact were merely compliant instruments of the communist authorities." Imams are only allowed to preach state sanctioned texts and must pass through nominally independent attestation which in practice is controlled by the state. According to Imams who have passed through the system, questions asked included the number of stars on Uzbekistan's flag and when Karimov was born.

While I was aware Karimov's repression of Muslims, although not the extent of his control, I had not until looking at articles today, realised that state repression and influence extended to other religions as well. While it is a member of the OSCE and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees freedom of conscience, many of the country's laws severely restrict believers' rights. Believers gathering for prayer in unregistered places of worship, for instance, may well face criminal prosecution. Those from religions regarded as "non traditional" in the region such as Protestantism, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna have been a particular focus of attention as government officials seek to prevent their spread. Baptism has even been declared illegal and its practitioners subject to increasing pressure. Bizarrely in my opinion, the regime justify their campaign against "proselytism" (attempts to convert others to your faith) on the basis that given the difficult economic situation the conversion of Muslims to other faiths could lead to riots.

Some commentators have expressed the hope that the recent State Department decision to reduce aid to the country will encourage the Uzbek government to improve its respect for human rights. I have expressed my opinion on this before and it is too early to tell anyway, but the initial signs do not bode well. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (an excellent source for information on the region and other underreported parts of the world), neighbourhood committees or 'makhallyas' are increasingly being co-opted into the state apparatus. Drawing on the Uzbek tradition of good neighbourliness the bodies have democratically heads and employ a secretary and community police officer. Given that there are 9,789 of them their potential as a tool of state control are clear.

Nazira Ismailova, head of Makhallya No 8 in Bukhara, one of the places targeted in attacks, apparently by Islamic extremists, in March of this year, said that around 10% of the people in her Makhallya were placed on a list following the bombings. In collaboration with the district police officer they compiled a list of "suspects" and placed them in a special folder. She comments, "These people have not yet committed any illegal acts, but we still put them on the list and we target them for crime prevention." Among the "suspects" were two women, apparently selected because they wore hijabs (headscarves). The targeting of women in hijabs is a recurring theme and some women have removed them as a result.

The makhallya have also been implicated in human rights abuses. IWPR note, "Shukhrat Ganiev, a human rights activist in Bukhara, has received 25 accounts of human rights violations by makhallya and district inspectors across the municipality." Many of the repressive functions of the police have been transferred, at least partially to the makhallaya. Personnel from the bodies have even accompanied police during arrests, apparently undermining the Uzbek constitution.

Increasingly makhallya members themselves are becoming the focus of attention. Khalil Shodiev is Deputy president of the makhallya elders association in Samarkand and was regularly summoned to municipal headquarters for talks with representatives of the National Security Service (NSS). "NSS representatives wanted to know if any people in the makhallya were dissatisfied with government policy." They were particularly interested in religious people asking if anyone with extreme views had distributed literature or drugs in the makhallyas.

The emergence of such a society brings to mind Orwellian visions of totalitarianism and is particularly horrific as it undermines people's ability to trust their friends, relatives and colleagues. Anyone could betray you at anytime. As should be clear Uzbekistan is a deeply troubled country. That the plight of it's people is apparently regarded as less important than Sven Goran-Whatsisname's sexual exploits says a lot.

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