Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Eyes and Ears of Uzbek Government

The mahalla used to be a benign social institution - now it is part of a police state.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Human rights activist Mahbuba Kasymova recalls the humiliation she was subjected to when she was paraded before a neighbourhood committee.


"There were about 300 people in the hall," she told IWPR. " I was brought in in handcuffs, and people started shouting at me that I was not a [proper] woman and I belonged in jail. One of the organisers of this meeting was the chair of the mahalla [community organisation] where I live."


The scene was the Uzbek capital Tashkent in 1999, not Stalin's USSR or Mao Zedong's China, but the technique is the same - staging ritual denunciations of dissidents in public. The aim is to lend an aura of popular approval to harsh sentences handed down by the authorities.


In Kasymova's case, that meant a five-year jail term for allegedly harbouring a criminal. There were strong indications that police planted false evidence on the man, in an effort to punish and silence Kasymova for her human rights work.


Her story highlights the way the Uzbek authorities have manipulated the mahalla - a traditional neighbourhood organisation - so that it has become an arm of the state, used to inform on the public and keep order at grassroots level.


Abuses committed by the state's mahalla committees are set out in a report published by Human Rights Watch on September 22, which describes how they have become the vehicles for repressive government policies.


As well as denunciations of dissidents, the mahalla committees have been used to report suspected Islamic activists to the authorities. They are also used as a basic instrument of social control, which can award or withhold state benefits depending how "well-behaved" the recipient is deemed to be.


The mahalla - as in other Muslim countries - used to simply mean the local community, comprising several hundred households living in the same area. Depending on what part of Uzbekistan they lived in, community leaders would get together to resolve property disputes and family quarrels, run communal events, or assist the needy - all without intervention by the state.


"Mahallas have existed from time immemorial," said Tashkent resident Mukaram Ahmedova. "People would voluntarily turn to the mahalla elders to seeking advice on family matters."


In the Soviet period, mahallas officially didn't exist, but continued to play a limited social role. But all that changed when President Islam Karimov began beefing up the state hierarchy after independence.


A 1999 law on local government transformed the mahalla into an official institution, the lowest tier of state authority. The informal body of locally selected elders was replaced by a committee whose members and agenda were imposed from above. The new committees were given both carrot and stick - first, the right to make state welfare payments to low-income families, and later on the task of organising neighbourhood-watch patrols.


At both national and local level, officials are keen to stress that the mahalla committee is peculiarly Uzbek - and therefore both appropriate to the community, and incomprehensible to outsiders. "Did you take the mentality of the Uzbeks into account when writing the report?" Nigmatulla Abdullaev, deputy head of the national mahalla organisation, asked Human Rights Watch representatives.


In fact the committees are of post-communist manufacture, and since they are no longer either popularly-selected or self-governing, few traditional elements are left.


At the same time, some people interviewed by IWPR think the committee play some useful role in delivering services.


"My mahalla works very well. We have a good chairman and we all decide collectively who needs financial support and help in our neighbourhood," said Tashkent pensioner Manzura Kabilova. "But I have heard that not all mahallas are like that."


But social control rather than empowerment is the norm. The mahalla network was called into action when the government intensified its clampdown on Islamic activists in the wake of the bomb attacks in Tashkent in February 1999, and subsequent cross-border incursions by guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The government needed a way to penetrate Uzbek society, which likes to keep itself to itself - especially at family and community level - and the mahalla committees were an ideal mechanism for this.


As Human Rights Watch report notes, the mahalla committees run surveillance on their community, telling the police not just about any avowed Islamic radicals, but about anyone who seems too pious. Once again, suspects are paraded and harangued at staged meetings - the object being to use public shaming as a means of social control.


Officials are unapologetic. "Your independent Muslims are terrorists and extremists who are encroaching on the constitutional order of Uzbekistan," said Rahimjon Nodirov, chairman of the Urikzor mahalla committee in Tashkent. "We have to protect our homes from such people."


The committees also play an intrusive role in family life, trying to prevent women from seeking divorces and thus effectively sanctioning domestic violence. Their permission has to be sought before a couple can go to the divorce courts - and may be denied. As Human Rights Watch's Tashkent representative Matilda Bogner said at the report launch, women are often forced back into abusive family situations.


"The woman is left without the right of choice," Olga Ilmuradova, head of the non-government Istikbol Avlod (Future Generation) based in the southern Surkhandarya region, told IWPR. "She cannot live with her abusive husband, but the mahalla does not allow a divorce.


"Unfortunately, such situations end tragically - the woman is driven to commit suicide. There are many such cases. But the mahalla is not held responsible."


Mahalla committee officials deny they are doing anything wrong. "We don't violate women's rights," said Miyassar Zakirov of Tashkent's Karasaray mahalla committee. "When they ask for advice from the mahalla, we just want to preserve the family so we try to reconcile the spouses."


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR project director in Uzbekistan.