Prague, 20 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The trial of eight Tabligh Jamaat members is a first for Tashkent.
But over the last six months, three trials involving its members have taken place in the Ferghana Valley, where the organization appears to be most active.
The eight Tabligh Jamaat members who appeared in court on 17 December were arrested in Tashkent in July and August. The deputy prosecutor-general has accused them of organizing an extremist radical group in 1998 whose goal was to conduct "jihad" against the government and establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.
Surat Ikramov, chairman of the Rights Activists Initiative Group, talked about the charges: "They come under Article 244 [of the Uzbek Criminal Code, which punishes setting up, leading, or membership of banned organizations]. Before this case, charges were usually about being connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Wahhabists, and 'Jamaat.' This time, officials aren't using Article 159 [on religious extremism and attempt to overthrow constitutional regime]. Officials say that the accused were taught by members of Tabligh."Apolitical Organization?
A brother of Normurad Jumaev, one of the eight men in the dock, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in Tashkent that the group's meetings were limited only to reading the Koran and the Hadith and never included discussions on politics.
Tura Mirzahojaev is also among the accused. According to his "confession," a copy of which RFE/RL obtained from the Prosecutor-General's Office, Tabligh members also discussed explosions that took place in Tashkent and Bukhara in March and April 2004.
Tura wrote: "Our teacher Farrukh told us that explosions were organized by people who were unknown to him. He didn't know who issued the fatwa [decision or decree] for them. But Farrukh said those people were going to be held accountable for their deeds. He also said we can establish an Islamic state through da'wat [appeals] by increasing the number of Muslims, not through violence."
Felix Corley, a human rights activist, said the case is a violation of basic human rights, as there is no proof that Tabligh is a terrorist group. Corley heads the Oslo-based Forum 18 news service that covers religious freedom issues in post-Soviet countries.
"The Uzbek authorities are very keen to prevent any kind of independent religious organization from gaining ground. And they are especially concerned about Islamic organizations." -- Felix Corley, a human rights activist
"So far, the accusations the government has put forward don't seem to be proven at all," Corley said. "They say that some of the texts confiscated from Tabligh members were extremist, while the Tabligh members themselves say that these are just normal Muslim manuscripts."
Independent observers say the court's decision might have been influenced by a recent speech by Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
During a televised news conference in September, Karimov criticized the foreign media for defending organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Karimov said was behind terrorist attacks in the spring and summer in Uzbekistan. The president also spoke about Tabligh Jamaat, saying, "If we don't fight against terror, we are going to have more and more organizations of this kind."
Kamol Kamilov, who is with the governmental Committee on Religious Affairs, told RFE/RL that the activities of Tabligh members are unlawful in Uzbekistan: "Tabligh Jamaat is not registered in Uzbekistan. And their activity, even if it exists, is banned by current laws."
Kamilov is referring to a 1998 law on religion that bans missionary work and the teaching of Islam or any other faith in a private capacity. Independent observers say the law violates international human rights agreements.
Corley told RFE/RL that Tabligh is yet another religious group suppressed by the Uzbek government.
"The Uzbek authorities are very keen to prevent any kind of independent religious organization from gaining ground. And they are especially concerned about Islamic organizations," Corley said. "Hizb ut-Tahrir has obviously been the main target of the government's campaign. But other movements, such as Tabligh Jamaat, have been regarded with great suspicion by the Uzbek government."
So, what is Tabligh and what does it stand for? Tabligh Jamaat's Origins
Tabligh Jamaat began in Dehli in the 1920s at the initiative Maulana Mohammad Ilyas, who is considered one of the most influential if least well-known figures of 20th-century Islam. It is now an international organization with centers in New Dehli and Dhaka, Bangladesh. It has also been active in other countries, including those in Central Asia.
The Arabic word "tabligh" means "convey" or "reach out." Islamic scholars refer to the Hadith by Imam Al-Bukhari, which says that the Prophet Muhammad commands all Muslims to convey the message of Allah.
Members of Tabligh Jamaat take it as their duty to inspire people to perform virtuous acts, refrain from sin, and follow the true path of Islam.
A prominent Uzbek Islamic scholar, Sheikh Muhammad Sodyq Muhammad Yusuf, told RFE/RL that the ideology of Tabligh was brought to Uzbekistan some 30 years ago.
"Tabligh Jamaat initially came to Uzbekistan in 1975. At that time, relations between the Soviet ambassador in Bangladesh [and Dhaka officials] were very good," Yusuf said. "Therefore, four members of this organization got visas and came to Tashkent as tourists. They didn't stay in hotels, but went to mosques, stayed there and participated in namaz [prayer] and talked about Tabligh. They also went to the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara"
The second wave of Tabligh in Uzbekistan became possible when the Soviet Union opened its borders under "perestroika." Many Uzbeks accepted Tabligh in the late 1980s and have been actively teaching Islam since.
Sheikh Muhammad Sodyq Muhammad Yusuf said Tabligh members gather at mosques and private homes to talk about Islam. He said the activity of Tabligh might be seen as missionary work that is banned under current Uzbek law. But he said he believes the group's goals are peaceful, harmless, and apolitical.
Corley also said there has been no evidence of extremist activity by Tabligh and no proof of connection between Tabligh and Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But he said the government's discriminatory policy toward religious groups end up radicalizing them.
"There is a danger that the way the government is treating such Islamic organizations could drive them to join some kind of underground political and military armed activity against the state," Corley said.
Corley said the government is determined to prevent free religious activity of any kind. It is particularly keen to keep Islam under its strict control.
Because the secular opposition is banned, Islam is seen as a last bastion of dissent.