Human rights organizations are charging that the government of Uzbekistan has systematically jailed thousands of people simply because of their religious beliefs. Leaders of the Central Asian country deny this. But they do say stringent measures are needed to combat religious extremists who want to create an Islamic state.
The call to prayer goes out, and millions of people all over Uzbekistan go to the mosque to pray. Islam is a way of life here. It was for Darmon Sultanova's husband and sons, and she believes it led to their arrest. Mrs. Sultanova recalls the day - in December, 1998 - when she says 150 armed policemen came to her door and searched her house. The police said they found three bullets, drugs, and some banned religious material. According to Mrs. Sultanova, all those items were put there by the police.
A few days after the search, police arrested her husband and two sons, and placed the rest of the family under house arrest for more than a week. Everywhere they went, says Mrs. Sultanova, including to the toilet, they were followed. Her husband and sons were tried, convicted, and sentenced during a closed trial, without benefit of a lawyer.
Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch say this is common practice in Uzbekistan. They say at least 7,000 Muslims are now in jail because of their religious beliefs.
Talib Yakubov is the head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, based in Tashkent, the capital. He says it is well known that, starting in 1997, the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov began a campaign of intimidation against devout Muslims.
Though most of Uzbekistan's 24 million people are Muslims, human rights activists say that has not deterred the Karimov government. They accuse it of regularly placing incriminating material - such as drugs or bullets -on devout Muslims to get easy convictions.
The Karimov government denies these charges. But its officials do say they are in a battle against religious extremism, and they say strong measures are needed to fight it.
The country's stronghold of Islamic activity is the Ferghana Valley, more than 300 kilometers southeast of Tashkent. The valley is rich in cotton, fruit trees, and melon fields. But it is also home to groups that want to set up an Islamic state.
The major city in the valley is Andijan, where Muzafarmirzo Iskhakov is head of the local branch of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. He says the government effort against Islam in the area has been intense. Holding up four fingers, he says that during the past three years he knows of only four people who were arrested for religious reasons and not found guilty.
But not everyone in Andijan is critical of the government. The mosque in Andijan is getting a new roof to cover the thousands who come here every week to pray. The mosque's deputy director, Toktasin Hasanov, says there is no problem with being a devout Muslim. He defends the Uzbek government and says those Muslims who have been arrested were arrested, not because of their faith, but because they are a threat to the country.
Mr. Hasanov says President Karimov is protecting the country from extreme forms of Islam, such as the Taleban practice in Afghanistan. He says if the president did not arrest these people, Uzbekistan could turn into another Afghanistan, which shares a border with Uzbekistan.
President Karimov's supporters say many of those arrested are members of religious groups, such as the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The government says these groups are trying to overthrow President Karimov and install an Islamic state. But the president's critics say his motives are solely political. They charge he is simply trying to get rid of any group that might be competition.
Human rights activists believe the arrests, far from making Uzbekistan calmer, are fueling discontent and anti-government sentiment. Ruslan Sharipov, president of the Union of Independent Journalists in Uzbekistsan, fears things could soon be worse. "There is a danger that a civil war can happen in Uzbekistan," he says. "Before people didn't believe it, but now they see what is happening, that such mass repression against Muslims just makes the situation worse."
Mrs. Sultanova says after her husband and sons were arrested, police came and said they were taking her to see them. She says when the police took her to the jail, they took off her clothes and made her stand naked in front of her sons. The police then threatened to rape her if the sons did not sign a confession. The sons signed, and she was sent home.
Mrs. Sultanova believes her 65-year-old husband is still in jail, but she is not certain about the fate of her sons. Both of them received the death penalty, and she has been told they were executed, but she has never seen their death certificates. She believes there is a chance they could still be alive.