WASHINGTON - Uzbekistan’s State Security Service says there is a revival of religious extremist activities in the Central Asian country, but the government’s history of alleging extremism accusations to target political opposition has led some observers to view the warning with suspicion.
The country’s security body in recent months has announced several operations against extremist activities, including an operation on September 8 in the capital, Tashkent. Six Uzbek citizens were detained for allegedly distributing material on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, to “call for and encourage going to Syria to join the ranks of an international terrorist organization.”
Uzbekistan has a population of nearly 33 million, with about 94% identifying as Muslims, according to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of the remaining population, 3.5% of the population identifies as Russian Orthodox. The remaining roughly 3% includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, other denominations of Christian faith, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists.
Like some of its neighboring countries, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Uzbekistan has been accused by rights organizations of restricting basic religious practices. The Uzbek government, however, says freedom of religion is guaranteed through its constitution and that its measures are merely to separate religion from the state, as well as uproot violent extremism that has been a threat for decades.
Uzbek officials have not disclosed the number of people arrested in recent sweeps. According to the country’s interior ministry, they mostly involved adherents of banned Islamist groups, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jihodchilar.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, or Party of Liberation, is an international pan-Islamist movement founded in 1953 by Taqiuddin al-Nabhani in Jerusalem with the aims of restoring the Islamic caliphate system. Despite its rejection of violence to establish a caliphate, individuals affiliated with the group have been linked to several attacks in different countries.
Almost nothing is known about Jihodchilar, meaning “Jihadists,” a group banned by the Uzbek government in 2016. Some regional experts and rights groups have questioned its existence and claimed it was invented by authorities to afflict dissenters under the guise of fighting extremism.
“Uzbekistan has very broad and vague definitions of ‘extremism,’ ‘extremist activity,’ or ‘extremist materials’ in the Counter-Extremism Act,” said Vladislav Lobanov, a Berlin-based senior research assistant for Human Rights Watch.
Lobanov said that despite some reforms and occasional presidential pardons of prisoners, arrests on extremism charges have continued under Shavkat Mirziyoyev who became president in 2016. Those who practice their faith outside strict state controls become targets for authorities.
“Many promising reforms continue to exist only on paper. The government still has a lot of work to do in the direction of ‘a new era of free society,’ including to create an independent judiciary, allow independent human rights groups to register and operate, end forced labor, allow opposition parties to contest elections, and stop censorship. These are still dreams for Uzbekistan,” Lobanov said.
VOA was not able to reach Uzbekistan’s interior and foreign ministries for comment.
Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister, became president following the death of President Islam Karimov and vowed significant reforms, including pardoning "sincerely repentant" religious prisoners and abolishing blacklists of individuals suspected of participating in extremist religious organizations.
Last month, Mirziyoyev ordered the release of more than 1,500 “persons serving a sentence of imprisonment who sincerely repented of their deeds and firmly embarked on the path of correction," including 113 political and Muslim religious prisoners, according to a government statement.
A long way to go
As part of Mirziyoyev's amnesty for religious prisoners, some members of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir group were also released. However, authorities arrested them again later on charges of “conspiring with Hizb ut-Tahrir to spread the ideas and literature of the group among the population, and to expand the ranks of the organization,” according to a government statement.
While Mirziyoyev's progress is welcomed by rights watchdogs, they say the country still has a long way to go to allow basic freedom of expression. The U.N. Human Rights Committee in April said it was concerned that the Uzbek government was still using the country’s legislation to unduly restrict freedom of religion, expression, assembly and association.
Steve Swerdlow, a human rights lawyer and an associate professor of human rights at the University of Southern California, said that the government’s criminal code, through strict limits on basic religious practices, has had "a strong chilling effect” on the progress of civil society in Uzbekistan. The criminal articles, he claimed, were violating the country’s international human rights obligations.
"President Karimov used them for a quarter century to go after both political and religious opponents, and while used less often now, they are still on the books and still applied periodically under the current president,” Swerdlow said, adding that the country’s repressive measures against extremism likely have adverse effects.
“If the government really wants to fight extremism, it can do so more effectively by creating an environment where human rights organizations are able to more freely register and where journalists can perform their work without fear of harassment or intimidation. Civil society is one of the most important bulwarks against violent extremism and this is an area where the government must do more to see that reforms indeed take place,” he said.
While the 2019 U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom recognized the Uzbek government for making “substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom,” the country still remains on the State Department’s Special Watch List for “having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.”
VOA Uzbek Service’s Malik Mansur contributed to this story from Europe.