Uzbekistan Calls Its First Witness

The first Jehovah's Witness to be prosecuted for his faith is given a suspended jail sentence.

Uzbekistan Calls Its First Witness

The first Jehovah's Witness to be prosecuted for his faith is given a suspended jail sentence.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

An Uzbek member of the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation has been found guilty of being part of a "pseudo-Christian" group after a controversial trial.

The prosecution was the first in Uzbekistan to treat membership of a non-traditional religious group as a crime, and it has been condemned by local civil liberties activists as unconstitutional and as an attack on human rights.

Tashkent resident Marat Mudarisov was found guilty on November 29 of the dissemination of pseudo-Christian teachings and ideas inciting national and racial hatred, and of undermining the constitution.

The courts had warned that Mudarisov was facing a long jail term, but following good references and given the fact that he is the family's breadwinner, he was given a three-year suspended jail sentence and two years' probation.

Human rights activists believe that the trial is a severe violation of the right to freedom of faith, which is guaranteed by the Uzbek constitution.

They also fear the prosecution may be the beginning of a campaign against non-Islamic religious organisations.

Mikhail Ardzinov, chairman of the Independent Organisation on Human Rights in Uzbekistan, said that while he was happy that Mudarisov was not behind bars, he did not believe that the defendant should have been on trial in the first place.

Mudarisov's defence team intends to lodge an appeal. "We will fight this verdict at all higher levels of authority, up to the Supreme Court and United Nations," lawyer Arli Chemirov told IWPR.

Mudarisov was arrested by agents from the National Security Agency, SNB, in July, and was found to be in possession of a bag of religious literature, one brochure of which was in Uzbek. According to the experts from the state department for religious affairs, the material was capable of "inciting religious and ethnic discord".

The suspect denied the brochure was in his bag and later claimed he had been beaten and threatened with torture by SNB agents from the Akmal-Ikramov district department in Tashkent to force a confession from him.

Testimony from witnesses who swore that they had never seen such material in Mudarisov's possession was ruled unconvincing by the court, and his fellow Jehovah's Witnesses were accused of perjuring themselves in an attempt to get the defendant acquitted.

Mudarisov's mother, Nuria, also told the court that she had been pressured into signing a statement condemning her son and his chosen faith.

The authorities' perceived hostility towards non-traditional religious groups was underlined in 1998 with the amendment of the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisation bill. This change in legislation was ostensibly to allow a crackdown on extreme Islamist groups, but other faiths have also suffered.

As a result, the number of mosques decreased, the rules for religious community registration became stricter, and the persecution of non-Sunni Islamic preaching began. It seems that non-traditional Christian movements can expect similar treatment, although there are few signs that this is discouraging their followers.

For the five years following his sentence, Mudarisov will be under constant surveillance, and he is expected to report to his local internal affairs department monthly. And if he is found guilty of another transgression, he will be sent to prison.

In spite of this, his Jehovah's Witness colleagues are pleased that he was not imprisoned. "When I heard in the court that Marat was found guilty, I started crying and began praying for him," said one group member, who gave her name only as Natalya. "When it became clear that he was given a suspended sentence, I thought it was our victory!"

Olga Borisova is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.

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