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Uzbekistan: Human Rights Organization Accuses Government Of Abuses Against Muslims

Munich, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, has added its voice to those charging that the Uzbek government led by President Islam Karimov has committed human rights abuses in its drive against alleged Islamic fundamentalism.

In a 31-page report released in Brussels yesterday, Human Rights Watch focused particularly on the secular Government's campaign against believers in the Ferghana valley. The valley, which has a population of about nine million, is an Islamic stronghold. Strong security measures have been enforced there since December last year when several police officers were murdered in the Namangan region.

Human rights organizations claim that hundreds of Islamic believers have been arrested, including many clerics. Earlier this month four Wahabi Muslims were put on trial in Namangan charged with provoking religious hatred, terrorism and co-operating in one of the December murders.

Uzbekistan's human rights record was criticized by the U.S. State Department in its 1997 review of the situation. The section on freedom of religion says the Government had detained a number of Islamic clerics in the Ferghana valley

Uzbekistan's record was also sharply criticized by the chairman of the OSCE, Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek, when he visited Tashkent last month. President Karimov responded then by saying that Islamic fundamentalism was a threat to stability in the region and he could not ignore it. Karimov said he had a "historical role" to play in stopping the threat posed by fundamentalism.

The Human Rights Watch report was released to the Uzbekistan government yesterday by a visiting delegation from the organization. It focuses on "abuses committed during the widespread, brutal sweeps by police and security forces beginning in December 1997." It calls on the Government to "cease arbitrary arrest and police brutality and protect peaceful religious expression.

The report says: "the government is painting all Muslims with the same brush -- those who may have criminal intent and average Muslims who simply wear a beard or go to the mosque. It is subjecting Muslims on a mass scale to beatings, expulsions from universities and jobs, show trials and lengthy prison terms." It charges that the police have singled out openly pious Muslims, or dissidents or their relatives, to intimidate and silence them.

Human Rights Watch charges that "police typically detained suspects without an arrest warrant, planted small amounts of marijuana or several bullets, a handgun or a grenade on their person, in their car or in their home during a search and beat them until they confessed to the crime."

It says "planting such evidence was reportedly so widespread during the crackdown that -- according to local residents -- men in that area tried to wear clothing without pockets to help deter such set-ups."

The report charges that Uzbekistan's secular government "is intolerant of religious expression that it deems too radical or non-conformist. For example, government has expelled some students on the eve of their college graduation for wearing head scarves or sporting beards as signs of Islamic piety. It has also closed down mosques whose congregations seemed loyal to local imams and caused at least two religious figures in the Ferghana valley to "disappear".

The 1997 U.S. State Department report on Uzbekistan also noted the disappearance of clerics, including the imam Abduvali Kori Mirzaev, who was allegedly detained at Tashkent airport in 1995 while traveling to a conference in Moscow.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Islam has played what it calls a "volatile role in the wars and civil strife in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, both of which border on Uzbekistan." But the report charged that by attacking Islam the government was trying to deflect attention from other problems in Uzbekistan.

"By prominently denouncing Islamic extremism, the Government of President Islam Karimov is trying to focus popular attention on supposed internal enemies to deflect social discontent," the report claimed. It described the Government as highly repressive in the Soviet style -- with heavy censorship, puppet "alternative" political parties and scores of political prisoners. It said the poor economy had also bred widespread discontent with the Government.

Human Rights Watch says its report "is meant to sound an alarm that the government, by committing serious, wide-scale human rights abuses in this volatile area, runs the risk of provoking precisely the radical and even criminal response it has vowed to avert."