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Uzbekistan: Mothers, Wives Of Religious And Political Prisoners Face Challenges With Strength

Uzbek President Islam Karimov tolerates only state-sponsored Islam and has cracked down on unauthorized religious or political activity. While an estimated 6,000 religious and political prisoners serve time, their mothers, wives, and daughters are often left behind, forced to survive in hard economic conditions. But Uzbek human right activists say these women possess a strong spirit and are more active in defending the rights of the prisoners than their male relatives.

Prague, 29 December 2004 -- Fifty-seven-year old Saida's three sons are in prison in Uzbekistan after having been convicted of religious extremism and attempting to overthrow the government.

Two of her sons were detained after a string of deadly bomb explosions in the Uzbek capital in February 1999 that were blamed on Islamic extremists. They were eventually sentenced to 17 years each. Her third son was detained several days after a series of explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara last spring killed some 50 people. He was convicted of the same crimes.

Saida lives in Tashkent with her daughters-in-law and two grandchildren and maintains that her sons are innocent. She said that, with her sons in prison, the four women have trouble making ends meet.

"My three daughters-in-law are jobless. One of them bakes cakes and sells them," Saida said. "The others help neighbors clean their houses and gets paid for it. I am retired myself. My pension is very small -- only 17,000 soums [$17] a month. But they give me only half of my pension. The other half goes for utilities, which I can't afford to pay otherwise."

Saida visits her sons in prison regularly, but the trip is difficult and costly. Two of her sons are in prison in Qarshi, in southern Uzbekistan. It takes eight hours to travel from Tashkent to Qarshi by bus. Then it may take another eight hours before she and her daughters-in-law are allowed to see the men. Relatives of religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan routinely have to wait longer to see their loved ones than the relatives of other prisoners and are restricted in the amount of food and clothing they can pass along.

The worst thing, Saida said, was when her eldest son disappeared last spring. She said she went to the police and the prosecutor's office, but was given no information on his whereabouts. Only three weeks later, Saida said, did she learn he had been detained.

Surat Ikramov, who heads the nongovernmental organization Center for Human Rights Initiative, said this is nothing unusual for Uzbekistan.

"First of all, it is the Internal Affairs Ministry, the police and the prosecutor's office who violate human rights," Ikramov said. "[According to law], when they detain someone, they must inform the detainee's mother or other family member within two to three hours. Then a suspect can be held in detention for 72 hours while the case is studied. If the suspicions seem sound, the prosecutor's office sanctions arrest."

Ikramov said that the women left behind by such detentions face particular challenges. One of the problems, he said, is that women like Saida are often unaware of their rights. Another problem is the stigma that is often attached to them, both by having family members in prison and because of their religious practices.

Saida and her daughters-in-law wear the hijab, the Muslim head scarf. This is part of the reason why they have trouble finding work. Ikramov said that Uzbek officials and many employers have negative attitudes toward traditional Muslim women.

Aza Sharipova never wore a hijab but said that she, too, felt stigmatized. In 2003, her son Ruslan was convicted of homosexuality and the sexual abuse of minors. International right groups, such as Human Rights Watch, say the case was politically motivated and that Ruslan was imprisoned for his independent journalistic activities.
"Granny, they imprisoned daddy. What are they going to do to us?"

Sharipov was eventually released and received political asylum in the United States earlier this year.

Sharipova recalled the detention of her son:

"I experienced such stress that I had to consult a psychotherapist afterward," Sharipova said. "It was awful when I went to the GUVD [the Internal Affairs department where Ruslan was being held]. Ruslan had a fever. They refused to give him medicine. I was so stressed because I was not allowed to give him food or anything else."

Ikramov said that, despite the obstacles, it is the women of Uzbekistan who fight most passionately for the rights of their imprisoned relatives.

"In 99 percent of cases, the mothers or wives [of convicts] seek our help," Ikramov said. "There are almost no fathers or brothers [who do so]. I believe it is because of the fear they have. I asked several men about this, and they openly admitted they were scared. They think officials will be less cruel toward women than men."

In Uzbekistan, women have also been more active in campaigning against the death penalty. Tamara Chikunova is a founder of the nongovernmental organization Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture. She started her campaign after her son Dmitrii was executed in 2000.

As he has done in the past, Karimov earlier this month declared a prisoner amnesty in honor of Constitution Day [8 December]. He announced his decision at a session of parliament in Tashkent.

"With today's decision, we are releasing 5,040 people from jail," Karimov said. "In general, the decree will also affect 8,000 to 9,000 people [who will have their sentences reduced]."

The amnesty applied mostly to people convicted of minor crimes, however, and Saida's sons were not among the 9,000. The amnesty never includes members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir movement, who have been accused of unconstitutional activities.

"An amnesty has been announced three times since [my sons] were imprisoned," Saida said. "But they were never granted it. I contacted the Internal Affairs Ministry. [They] said the crime was too serious and that my sons must ask the president's pardon. How can they beg pardon for something they didn't commit?"

Saida said that the hardest thing for her is to answer her grandchildren's questions about the future.

"The kids are growing up with negative feelings toward the government," Saida said. "They ask me why their fathers are in prison. The other day, my 4-year-old grandson asked me: 'Granny, they imprisoned daddy. What are they going to do to us?' I said, 'They are not going to do anything to you.' And he said: 'I don't want to be imprisoned.'"

It has been five years since Saida's two sons were imprisoned. There are 12 years left on their sentences. Saida said she fears she might not live long enough to see their release.

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