Prague, 31 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An international human rights group has criticized the Uzbek government for persecuting Muslim dissidents who practice their religion outside of state controls.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report this week, says in recent years the government has jailed thousands of mostly peaceful Muslims as part of a concerted campaign to repress independent Muslims who practice their faith outside state-run mosques and schools. The report, titled "Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan," contends the policy has only served to criminalize and marginalize large parts of the population.
The release of the report -- which tracks abuses through much of last year -- came on the third day of fighting between government forces and alleged Islamist militants that left at least 42 people dead. It was the worst spasm of violence since 1999 when bomb blasts in the capital Tashkent killed some 16 people.
"What we do know is that there are several segments of society here in Uzbekistan who have had negative experiences with the police. And so it's certainly conceivable that a variety of people would feel discontent and some kind of anger toward the police."
While the facts surrounding the violence are still unclear, the government has been quick to pin the blame on radical Islamists with possible ties to international militants. Others, however, discount the likelihood of international involvement, saying the violence could simply be the work of local groups, radicalized and disaffected by years of repression.
The HRW report is careful not to link the many peaceful Muslims documented in its report with possible acts of violence. Nevertheless, the document's author, Acacia Shields, concedes that the repression has bred strong discontent and distrust in Uzbek society.
"What we do know is that there are several segments of society here in Uzbekistan who have had negative experiences with the police. And so it's certainly conceivable that a variety of people would feel discontent and some kind of anger toward the police," Shields said.
Religious repression has been a factor of Uzbek life nearly since independence in 1991. But Shields says the number of arbitrary arrests on religious grounds has increased sharply since the 1999 Tashkent bombings. "Significantly, I think, after the Tashkent bombings in  there was a sharp rise in the number of arrests, and these were not arrests of people for having been involved in the bombings, they were arrests of independent Muslims who were not involved in any violence and who were not even accused by the government of being involved in any violence," Shields said.
The HRW report is based on five years of research throughout the country, including interviews with some 200 independent Muslim victims and their relatives, as well as eyewitnesses and officials. Shields says the arrests and religious trials are continuing.
For its part, the government in many cases has justified the arrests by saying they are part of the wider war on Islamic extremism and terrorism. This week, in responding to the unrest, officials put the blame on what they called "Wahhabis" -- a general term they use to lump together both militant Muslims and those who simply practice their faith in ways not sanctioned by the state.
Aaron Rhodes, the director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, says the government's view is counterproductive. He told RFE/RL the repressive policies have only alienated the population. He added that the disaffection could easily play into the hands of militants -- if it hasn't already.
"Large sectors of the Uzbek population are alienated from the government. If their alienation reaches a certain point, they might be sympathetic to terrorists. And that's not in the security interests of Uzbekistan and that's not in the security interests of the wider international community," Rhodes said.
In a joint statement issued yesterday, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan called on Uzbek President Islam Karimov to respect basic principles of human rights as part of his effort to secure public safety. All eyes are now turned to how the government will react to the crisis.
Rachel Denber, HRW's regional acting executive director, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that in the past -- such as after the 1999 bombings -- the government has tended to draw the wrong lessons, increasing rather than lessening the repression.
"So now the question is [how] the Uzbek government is going to respond to what happened. Previously, the government responded to acts of terrorism with very broad crackdowns that were targeted at religious people who prayed at home, who study to teach Islam outside the state-controlled institutions. And the people they arrested were never charged with any acts of violence and were never convicted on charges of any acts of violence," Denber said.
Uzbek law-enforcement agencies today said they have already detained some 30 people in connection with the unrest. More arrests are expected.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and correspondent Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)