Religious persecution unchecked in Uzbekistan

U.S. sends aid to terror war ally despite abuses

By Alex Rodriguez

Tribune foreign correspondent

August 13, 2002

MOSCOW -- Mustafa Avazov, a devout Muslim and father

of four, died inside an Uzbek prison meant solely for

violators of Uzbekistan's harsh "extremism" laws that

effectively punish the practice of Islam outside the

auspices of state-controlled mosques.

Some of his skin had been burned off, wounds that

doctors said could be inflicted only by holding

someone under boiling water. His fingernails were

gone. His head had a gaping wound in the back.

He died, human-rights workers allege, because he

defiantly told prison guards he would continue praying

"no matter what they did."

Despite pleas for reform from the Bush administration,

Uzbekistan has yet to show any signs of ending its

notorious record of religious persecution, rights

activists say. As evidence, New York-based Human

Rights Watch released details last weekend of the

deaths of two Muslim men jailed for their adherence to

non-state-sanctioned Islam.

Uzbek officials, including President Islam Karimov,

have defended their tactics as necessary to winning

the nation's own war on terrorism. Karimov even

acknowledged last fall that his country's dismal

rights reputation is at least partly deserved.

Earlier this year, a State Department report said the

Uzbek government "perceives Islamic activity outside

the state-sponsored mosques as an extremist security

threat and outlaws it. During the year, the government

harassed, arrested and detained--and otherwise

mistreated--hundreds of alleged members of such


Still, the U.S. has forged a strong alliance with

Uzbekistan as it continues the war on terrorism in

Central Asia, and the Bush administration has poured

hundreds of millions of dollars in aid into the former

Soviet republic, despite Karimov's record on human


The men cited by Human Rights Watch died sometime this

summer in Uzbekistan's infamous Jaslyk prison, a

remote labor camp amid the sand flats ringing the Aral

Sea, said Matilda Bogner, director of Human Rights

Watch's office in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

Before they died, each man had been moved to solitary

confinement cells: damp, windowless cubicles kept in

complete darkness and used most often for inmates

caught praying, Bogner said. Inmates in Jaslyk's

solitary confinement cells often are beaten and given

reduced food rations, she said.

In May, Human Rights Watch workers were told that

Avazov, 35, had defied orders from guards to stop

praying and was moved to solitary confinement, Bogner

said. "He said he would continue praying no matter

what they did, that there was no way they could stop

him from praying," she said.

He died 10 days later, but his body was not turned

over to relatives until Thursday, Bogner said. Uzbek

authorities ordered Avazov's relatives to not speak to

the news media about his death, she said.

Less is known about the death of Husnidin Alimov, 34,

who died several weeks after being placed in solitary

confinement in June. Alimov's young son was able to

view the body and told other relatives that it

appeared blackened. Alimov's body also was released to

relatives Thursday.

"We don't have direct evidence of torture, but he was

seen by relatives prior to being put in a punishment

cell as looking healthy, and he comes out of the

punishment cell dead," Bogner said.

In the past 15 months, Human Rights Watch has

documented 11 cases of people who died under

suspicious circumstances while in custody--most

involving people charged with practicing their faith

outside state-controlled mosques.

In the late 1990s, Karimov began clamping down on such

Muslims. Though most Uzbeks are Muslim, Karimov argued

that the crackdown was needed to stamp out terrorism

that used religion as a cover. Indeed, in 1999 and

2000, Karimov's government quelled armed incursions

from the militant group Islamic Movement of


But the Bush administration and human-rights activists

have criticized Karimov for extending the crackdown to

non-sanctioned expressions of Islam or any other

faith. Under Uzbek law, Islam can only be practiced at

state-controlled mosques run by government-appointed

imams. Sermons are monitored by the government. Most

men do not wear beards for fear of being accused of

extremism; most women avoid wearing headscarves for

the same reason.

Last year, the U.S. did not name Uzbekistan as a

"country of concern" under the International Religious

Freedom Act, a listing that could have cost Uzbekistan

millions in foreign aid, Bogner said.

"From what we've documented, it's a country that so

flagrantly abuses religious freedom rights that it's

impossible to look at this failure to designate

Uzbekistan and not think that it was due to political

interests in the region," Bogner said. "The U.S. does

raise issues of human rights in the region and does

make demands on Uzbekistan to improve. But it's not


Copyright  2002, Chicago Tribune


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