Uzbekistan: Backsliding on Religious Freedom Promises

Muslims Prosecuted; Faith Groups Denied Registration


The Uzbek government is restricting religious freedom despite promises to eliminate restrictions, Human Rights Watch said on May 24, 2023. The government is preventing registration of religious communities, subjecting former religious prisoners to arbitrary controls, and prosecuting Muslims on overly broad and vaguely worded extremism-related charges.

A 2021 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations retains restrictive and rights-violating provisions. And the authorities are prosecuting people under overbroad religious extremism-related provisions in Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, while ignoring allegations of abuse in custody.

“President Shavkat Mirziyoyev received credit early on for initiating reforms granting more religious freedoms in Uzbekistan, but what we’re seeing today is a mixed record, in which serious abuses occur with impunity,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Uzbekistan authorities still consider legitimate expression of religious sentiment or belief ‘extremism,’ and peaceful religious communities and individuals are paying the price.”

The Mirziyoyev government put an end to the routine mass arrests of Muslims – common under the late President Islam Karimov – released hundreds of people imprisoned for their peaceful religious activities or beliefs, and reported that thousands of citizens were removed from security service “blacklists.’’ Yet, the Uzbek government still appears to view religion as a threat and, as a result, imposes undue restrictions on peaceful religious communities and people.

Sergey Artyushev, a Tashkent-based Jehovah’s Witness representative, told Human Rights Watch: “The main problem is that the [Uzbek] government treats freedom of religion as a privilege, not a right.” Muslim activists noted that while “religion is formally separated from the government,” state officials heavily control religious practice through both the Muftiyat, the Muslim spiritual board, and the State Committee on Religious Affairs, a government body that oversees religious practice in Uzbekistan.

Between March 6 and 10, 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 human rights defenders, bloggers, lawyers, and victims of religious freedom violations in Tashkent and Fergana regions in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch also reviewed court material in nine cases, as well as media reports on religion-related criminal cases. Additional interviews had been carried out remotely between November 2021 and August 2022.

In late April, Human Rights Watch wrote to the Uzbek government to share its preliminary findings and request information about restrictions on religious freedom in Uzbekistan. In a written response, the Uzbek government did not acknowledge any restrictions and claimed that the “legal framework [in Uzbekistan] fully meets international standards and ensures the rights of everyone to freedom of conscience and religion.”

Human Rights Watch documented seven cases in which Uzbek authorities in the last three years brought criminal charges against people for storing or sharing content containing “religious extremist” ideas, in violation of their right to freedom of religion or belief and expression. In a recent case, a Tashkent court sentenced a 20-year-old economics student to three years in prison for downloading a religious song authorities had deemed “extremist,” and sharing it with some classmates in a Telegram chat.

Human Rights Watch also documented several cases in which Muslims who had fled Uzbekistan under President Karimov fearing religious persecution were arrested and prosecuted when they returned on religious extremism-related criminal charges. In some cases, the people interviewed said the police had given them or their loved ones assurances that they would not be prosecuted or imprisoned upon their return.

Despite many recommendations from the United Nations and other international bodies that the government should amend its overbroad and vague definition of “extremism,” Uzbek law does not distinguish between violent and nonviolent extremism. Extremism-related provisions in the criminal code are used against people solely for their peaceful religious activity or expression. This may violate international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of religion, expression, and association, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also documented several cases in which police allegedly ill-treated and tortured people who were being held on religious extremist-related offenses. The authorities have failed to investigate or hold the abusers accountable.

Several people expressed concern about requirements to register religious groups. Although the registration process was simplified in the 2021 religion law, the government continues to impose undue obstacles and interfere with registration efforts, people interviewed said. Jehovah’s Witnesses have made multiple attempts to register in Tashkent and Samarkand since 2021, all unsuccessfully. A human rights activist in the Fergana region estimated that about 10 people who were struggling to register mosques in their neighborhoods had come to him for advice.

Two men formerly imprisoned on religion-related charges said that years after they had served their prison sentences in full, courts had imposed temporary administrative oversight limiting their movement and requiring them to regularly check in with the police. The arbitrary restrictions violated their rights to liberty and freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said.

Uzbekistan’s international partners should urge Uzbekistan, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief. Human Rights Watch echoes the recommendation of the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom in its 2023 annual report to reinstate Uzbekistan on the United States’ State Department’s Special Watch List.

Uzbek authorities should ensure that rights-violating provisions related to freedom of religion in the Criminal Code and in the 2021 religion law are amended in line with international human rights law. The government should ensure that Muslims are able peacefully to express their religious views, including by storing and sharing religious materials even if these are deemed radical by the authorities. The authorities should drop all criminal charges and take steps to quash convictions in cases involving the storage of materials deemed “extremist” that do not involve use, or intent to use, such material to incite or commit violent acts.

Uzbek authorities should review the practice of imposing administrative oversight on former religious prisoners, with a view to ending such arbitrary restrictions, and ensure that religious communities are able to register without undue government interference.

“It’s clear that Uzbek authorities need to do much more to ensure that freedom of religion is fully respected and upheld in Uzbekistan,” Rittmann said. “Uzbekistan’s partners should urge the Uzbek government to renew stalled reform efforts and stop all harassment and persecution of peaceful religious communities and people.”

Source:Human Rights Watch