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Uzbekistan Cracks Down on Protests

Uzbek security forces use heavy-handed tactics to quash demonstrations
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Dozens of women and children were rounded up by Uzbek militia forces in Tashkent and Andijan on July 2 as they attempted to gather for protests against the detention of members of the banned religious organisation Khizb-ut-Takhrir.


The women protestors began gathering at bus stops outside the Khokimiat, local administration buildings in the two cities just after 9 am. Aged between 20 and 60, some accompanied by young children, the women all have close relatives currently in custody for alleged membership of the banned group.


Khizb-ut-Takhrir has been banned and suspected members imprisoned for alleged 'anti-state activities'. The women hoped to present demands calling for improved conditions for the prisoners and the release of innocent men.


In Tashkent two buses pulled up after about 20 women had gathered. One bus was already full of arrested demonstrators, the other with militia officers, who immediately jumped out and began bundling the women into the second bus. The women resisted arrest and were forcibly dragged onto the buses screaming and crying.


The buses returned to the spot five times to remove successive groups of women from the bus stop. Other buses of militia officers patrolled the surrounding streets arresting any woman spotted in religious dress heading towards the Khokimiat building. In total between 40 and 50 women were arrested in Tashkent and taken to the militia headquarters.


Similar scenes were repeated in Andijan, regional capital of the Fergana valley. Around 30 women were forcibly removed from the Navoi park near the Khokimiat building and bundled into waiting cars. The women were taken to the Andijan ministry of interior building. Two representatives from the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU) were also arrested, but later released when their identities were confirmed.


The militia's actions prevented the women from presenting their petition addressed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Placards were also removed by national security service personnel.


The women's statement accused interior ministry staff of using "torture and physical pressure against men, arrested for membership of the Khizb-ut-Takhrir party."


"The arrested are raped, starved to death, are not allowed to sleep, are infected with various diseases, their bodies are burned and their teeth and nails are pulled out," the statement claimed.


"We demand a stop to this violence, an end to arrests, made only because our men pray and trust in God. We demand the release of the unfairly arrested Muslim young men and that the ministry of interior be punished," the statement went on.


The Independent Organization for Human Rights of Uzbekistan, IOHRU, reported that the militia authorities took down detailed information on each of the arrested women before passing them onto the courts. The courts fined each participant $2 for taking part in an unsanctioned rally. All the women were released the same evening.


IOHRU chairman Mikhail Ardzinov believes only desperation could have driven the women to take such action, but argues their protest was ill timed. He fears the demonstrations could have spoiled any chance of an amnesty for religious prisoners expected on the tenth anniversary of Uzbek independence in September.


"We've worked on behalf of some of the religious prisoners, at least those not charged with article 159 - encroachment on the constitutional system - calling for them to be included in the amnesty. But now this amnesty is unlikely to include them. It may be reported to the president that religious prisoners are very dangerous," Ardzinov said.


The women themselves say a sense of hopelessness and impatience pushed them to take action. Many of the prisoners were the main breadwinners and their arrest has pushed their families into destitution. The women also say they could not sit by while their husbands, sons and brothers were suffering such brutal treatment in prison.


"My son was sentenced to 17-years' imprisonment in a hard-labour colony in 1999 for membership of Khizb-ut-Takhrir," one woman said. "Now he is in Jaslyk prison in the north of Karakalpakstan. There are terrible conditions there. They are forced to sit in the sun for hours in 50 degree heat, they are mocked, insulted and beaten... My son will not survive his prison term, people do not survive even a year there."


An officer from the national security service said the women's protest had to be suppressed to prevent "these religious organisations" gaining strength and destabilising Uzbekistan. He claimed the protests were organised as a deliberately provocative move sponsored by religious extremist centres outside the country.


The Uzbek authorities maintain that religious organisations, which support the creation of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, pose the greatest threat to national security. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, is already in armed confrontation with the government. Khizb-ut-Takhrir calls for the peaceful establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan and the unification of all Muslim states into a Khalifat.


Some experts argue that the women's attempts to organise protests simultaneously in Tashkent and Andijan indicates that the action was centrally organised. Such an analysis has only heightened tension within the authorities, whose only apparent response to such activity is the use of force.


The women, however, made no political demands. They sought only to improve conditions in prison and an end to brutality.


Many international human rights organisations corroborate the women's claims that torture is common place in Uzbek prisons. Even the government doesn't deny it.


The IOHRU reckons there are presently around 7,400 political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Around 7,000 of those are people convicted of membership of banned religious organisations. Trials of alleged Khizb-ut-Takhrir members continue.


The heavy-handed tactics deployed by the militia against the women suggests the Uzbek government sets more store by violently repressing protests than it does by addressing the social and economic problems, which drive people into the arms of religious groups such as Khizb-ut-Takhrir.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's country director in Uzbekistan


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