Uzbek Women Plead for Religious Prisoners

President Karimov is urged to alleviate the suffering of Uzbekistan's political and religious inmates.

Uzbek Women Plead for Religious Prisoners

President Karimov is urged to alleviate the suffering of Uzbekistan's political and religious inmates.

Four hundred Uzbek women appealing to President Islam Karimov to include their relatives in a forthcoming amnesty have themselves been subject to harassment and intimidation.

The relatives of the women, who all come from the Fergana Valley region, have all been convicted of being members of the outlawed Islamic organisation Khizb-ut-Takhrir.

The president is expected to announce an amnesty on August 31, the eve of the tenth anniversary of the country's independence. Previous amnesties have not included political prisoners, a category which refers to those charged with belonging to outlawed religious groups. The latter are commonly referred to as "religious prisoners".

The women are making two main demands. The first is that prison guards treat so-called religious prisoners the same as all other detainees. "By submitting this appeal, we inform you that in prisons and colonies our relatives are being tortured physically and mentally," they wrote in their appeal. The second demand is that the forthcoming amnesty includes political prisoners, on the grounds that all citizens are theoretically equal before the law.

The appeal to the president was signed by 423 people, but according to the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, HRSU, many more would have done so had local officials not harassed women wanting to sign or those collecting signatures.

In one instance, the chairman of a mahalla - a neighbourhood citizen's committee - told a woman collecting signatures that, if higher officials heard of her activities, they would take this as confirmation of her son's guilt and his conditions in prison would worsen. As a result, many women stopped collecting signatures and destroyed those they had already collected.

There have also been reports of petition lists being seized by local officials, ostensibly for verification, and not being returned.

According to the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, the number of political prisoners in Uzbek prisons and colonies stands at 7,600, of whom 7,400 are prisoners of conscience convicted for membership of outlawed religious organisations.

Reports collected by the HRSU speak of a red diagonal line being drawn on the cover of the personal files of individuals convicted of anti-constitutional activities. The same prisoners are also readily identifiable to warders who mete out particularly harsh treatment - often beating the prisoners several times daily as part of their "corrective education".

Numerous testimonies speak of religious prisoners suffering extreme cruelty. They are held in special blocks or facilities, where a stricter regime of detention and guarding is applied. They have no opportunity to communicate with other prisoners and are forced to perform the dirtiest and most humiliating work. According to one witness, prisoners "with a red line" are often raped, consigning them to the lowest rung in the prisoners' hierarchy.

Other reports say that, unlike ordinary prisoners, religious prisoners are obliged to register every three hours. Any delay, even if not the prisoner's fault, results in prisoner's confinement in an isolation cell.

The HRSU in Andijan, a city in the Fergana valley, believes only extreme circumstances have forced the women to launch their appeal. These include the disproportionately long sentences handed down to their relatives and the realisation that the prisoners are subjected to torture in prison. Moreover, many families have been left without bread-winners and are consequently suffering severe financial hardship.

During the spring and summer of this year, in Fergana valley towns and in Tashkent, internal security forces suppressed rallies of women protesting against the cruel treatment of their relatives in prisons and demanding their release. The HRSU believes the rallies were planned by religious groups, including Khizb-ut Takhrir, which used the women to demonstrate that it has the capability to become an active opposition.

Khizb-ut Takhrir was founded by Sheikh Takydin Nabahani in Palestine in the early 1950s with the ultimate goal of uniting all Islamic countries under a new Caliphate. Official sources in Uzbekistan say the movement first emerged there after 1992. It spawned cells in Tashkent city and Tashkent province, the cities of Namangan, Fergana and Andijan, and the provinces of Khorezm, Bukhara, Surkhandaria, Kashkadaria, Jizzak and Karakalpakstan. Nationwide membership is put officially at 10,000 people.

Khizb-ut Takhrir members say they do not advocate violent methods of political change in Uzbekistan, instead emphasising ideological methods of achieving their goals. The organisation's leaflets and propaganda materials have been distributed in several areas of the country and also in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakstan.

So far, the Uzbek government has failed either to engage politically with or suppress the movement. The HRSU thinks the government should seize the initiative by showing mercy to at least some of those convicted for membership of religious organisations, especially to those who joined in ignorance of their wider ideologies and have since repented.

"If the government really cares about the president's standing and civil peace in the republic", said an HRSU spokesman, "in preparing the text of the amnesty, the presidential staff should take into consideration the interests of those citizens who have relatives imprisoned for political motives, since there is an ever-growing number of such people."

However, the regime seems unprepared to change its policy on extremist religious organisations, apparently believing it can still resolve the problem by force. Meanwhile, various groups, each of about ten people accused of membership of Khizb-ut-Takhrir, are currently on trial in district courts in Tashkent, the capital, with similar trials are under way elsewhere. None of this augurs well for the success of the Fergana women's appeal.

In the absence of at least some amnesties or effective political engagement, a new round of rallies and further radicalisation of affected communities may be on the cards. Religious organisations are well-placed to exploit the disaffection to the detriment of security in the country.

Saidjahon Zainabutdinov works with the Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan.

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