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Central Asia: Rights Monitor Slams U.S. Religious Freedom Report On Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan

  • Robert McMahon

Turkmen President Niyazov's government is blamed for harshly suppressing freedom of worship (file photo) (AFP) The head of a U.S. body that monitors religious freedom has criticized the State Department for failing to list Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan among the most serious violators of those freedoms. Michael Cromartie told a U.S. congressional panel that the Uzbek and Turkmen governments continue to impose severe restrictions on religious practices. Their omission from the annual State Department list of "countries of particular concern," Cromartie said, discredits U.S. legislation aimed at improving religious freedoms worldwide.

Washington, 16 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended earlier this year that the State Department cite Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan as "countries of particular concern."

That designation would expose them to possible sanctions and intensified engagement by U.S. officials on rights issues.
"Hundreds of Muslim believers are imprisoned for no reason other than
the fact that they are outwardly observant of their religious beliefs. The [Uzbek] government took important steps in 2004 to
address torture and establish police accountability, but serious abuses
continued."


But in its annual report last week, the State Department made no change to its list of the most serious violators of religious freedom. That list includes Iran, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Burma, and Vietnam.

The chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, Michael Cromartie, told a human rights panel of the
U.S. House of Representatives yesterday that this harms U.S. policy.

"In the face of severe religious freedom violations perpetrated by the Turkmen and Uzbek governments, the continued failure to name them as [countries of particular concern] undermines the spirit and letter of [the International Religious Freedom Act]," he said.

The 1998 act passed by the U.S. Congress obligates the government to make such designations on religious freedom. The Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent body created by Congress to monitor implementation of the act.

Cromartie said the State Department's finding that Turkmenistan had made significant improvements in religious freedoms in the past year was particularly distressing to rights advocates. He said most religious activities in Turkmenistan are under state control. And Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, he said, continues to cultivate a personality cult that has become an enforced quasireligion for the Turkmen people.

"The country report on Turkmenistan in this year's religious freedom report is one of the most troubling in the entire report, not least because it makes the startling claim that 'the status of government respect for religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report,'" he said. "Mr. Chairman, this conclusion is regarded as erroneous not only by the commission but by most human rights organizations and other observers of Turkmenistan."

Just prior to the hearing of the congressional panel, a group of 10 international nongovernmental organizations issued a statement expressing concern about the State Department's findings on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Panel chairman Chris Smith, a Republican, criticized what he called the "thuggish regimes" of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But Smith did not challenge the listing of "countries of concern" when he questioned John Hanford, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Hanford, who spoke before Cromartie, did not directly address why Uzbekistan was left off the list of most serious violators of religious freedom. He accused Uzbekistan of serious repression of religious freedom and condemned its failure to allow an international investigation into the bloody uprising in Andijon last May.

"Hundreds of Muslim believers are imprisoned for no reason other than the fact that they are outwardly observant of their religious beliefs," he said. "The [Uzbek] government took important steps in 2004 to address torture and establish police accountability, but serious abuses continued."

Uzbek officials repeatedly say their actions to stop what they call religious "extremists" are legitimate, such as the crackdown in Andijon that Western governments have characterized as a massacre.

In the case of Turkmenistan, Hanford repeated the State Department report's assertion that the Niyazov government has taken some positive steps: "In Turkmenistan, presidential decrees and amendments to law resulted in the registration of new minority religious groups and the release of a number of prisoners. And just recently, the government conducted a first-ever roundtable with representatives of religious minorities. Nevertheless, serious problems remain."

An expert with the watchdog group Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski, told the panel that Uzbekistan should have been counted among the most serious violators of religious freedom. He said it is now important for the U.S. government to join the European Union in imposing sanctions on Uzbekistan.

Rights advocates expressed hope that legislation proposed by Smith, the panel chairman, will create stronger links between the performances of Central Asian countries on rights issues and U.S. military and economic aid. Smith said he expects progress soon on his proposed Central Asia Democracy and Human Rights Act.
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