International rights watchdog Human Rights Watch says Uzbek authorities in the past several weeks have expanded their crackdown on dissident Muslims to include women. The New York-based group reports that two weeks ago, Uzbek police rounded up female protesters in the Ferghana Valley and the capital, Tashkent, detaining at least 18 women. The same week, a court sentenced four women to prison for alleged membership in a banned religious group. Another four women are currently on trial for similar charges.
Prague, 6 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report issued 1 May accuses Uzbek President Islam Karimov of extending his campaign against non-mainstream Muslims to include women.
Marie Struthers is HRW's interim representative in Tashkent. She says that since the end of the 1990s, Uzbek authorities have conducted a concerted campaign of arrests and convictions against members of various Muslim groups deemed by the state as extremist and posing a threat to regional security.
"This includes very often unlawful arrest, lack of access to independent legal representation, trumped-up charges, witnesses who provide insufficient and contradictory testimony, unpreparedness of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges."
Thousands of men have been detained in the crackdown, but until recently, very few women were targeted for arrest. Struthers says, however, that is beginning to change.
"The campaign is characterized by a mounting number of detentions of women, particularly those who wear the headscarf and who demonstrate to protest the government's harsh policy against these men who have been given prison sentences, and to protest the harsh treatments that are accorded religious prisoners in Uzbekistan."
On 23 April, HRW reports, Uzbek police detained at least nine women and their children in the capital Tashkent and at least another nine in Margilan, in the Ferghana Valley. The watchdog group says several dozen women in both areas were protesting the persecution of Muslim dissidents and demanding the release of male relatives jailed for alleged links to extremist Islamic opposition groups.
Struthers says the trend doesn't stop with detentions. HRW recently observed two trials of women charged with membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, is an Islamic group calling for the peaceful re-establishment of the Caliphate in Central Asia. It has denounced the U.S.-led antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan. On 24 April, a court in Tashkent sentenced four women to prison for alleged membership in the banned religious group. The sentences ranged from a two-year suspended sentence to four years in prison. The second trial, involving another four women facing similar charges, is continuing in the capital.
Struthers notes the trials coincide with an increase in the number of demonstrations being held by women to protest the detention of family members.
"According to international and local human rights organizations, there may be close to 7,000 male prisoners convicted at this time. So it's no surprise that women would protest not only the absence of men from their households, but the harsh treatment accorded to them while they've been detained."
Some observers say evidence of women's growing roles in Hizb-ut-Tahrir suggests the organization is finding replacements for male members who have been imprisoned. Vitali Ponomarev is the program director for Central Asia at the Moscow-based human rights center, Memorial.
"Women's groups were always a certain part of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. And there existed certain female groups, called 'Halqa,' which gathered separately from men's groups. Approximately two years ago, Hizb-ut-Tahrir decided that women take more of a part in the group's political actions, because Uzbek authorities are not so rigid in their actions and attitude toward women as they are toward men."
HRW's Struthers calls the targeting of women a worrying trend, saying it is a clear indication there will be no let-up in the campaign against non-official Muslims.
Some, however, argue that the number of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members being arrested is already on the decline. But Memorial's Ponomarev says this does not mean authorities are any less diligent.
"On the one hand, the public activity of Hizb-ut-Tahrir has decreased. And on the other hand, it has begun to operate more underground. That is why it became more difficult [for authorities] to find new activists -- new members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, to arrest them."
At a recent press conference held in Tashkent during the visit of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the end of April, Karimov indicated there would be no change in his government's policies. Describing the wave of arrests and court cases as a struggle against radical extremists, Karimov declared, "This is not an example of events that have simply started to happen more often, but a continuous struggle against radical Islamic activities."
The aims of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Karimov added, "are radical and extremist and we will persecute this organization on Uzbek territory in accordance with our legislation."
Tashkent has recently won praise for its cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against terror. But human rights activists are concerned that international criticism of Uzbekistan's poor human rights record has fallen by the wayside in the wake of 11 September.
Karimov says repression of extremist Islamic groups is justified. But rights activists warn the government crackdown will only fuel the militancy of such groups. Struthers says if measures are not taken to uphold the religious and human rights of independent Muslims, the number of extremist Islamic groups will only increase.
"If [the repression] continues, it's only going to continue to feed the ground for the fostering of more extremist groups that have no other avenue to voice their peaceful beliefs."
Karimov tried to soften his reputation for intolerance ahead of a U.S. visit in March. An Uzbek court, in an unprecedented ruling, sentenced four policemen to prison sentences for torturing to death a detainee and seriously injuring a second. The country also registered its first rights group, the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan. Critics, however, have argued that such conciliatory gestures were made for the benefit of the Western community and do not reflect any true softening of policy in Tashkent.