Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Uzbekistan: Islamists' Pardon Under Scrutiny
Several hundred members of the Khizb ut-Takhrir Islamic movement were released from prison last week, under an amnesty announced in December. The terms of the pardon and the beating of prisoners' families by government troops, however, dampened hopes that the releases signal a softening in the Uzbek government's attitude towards religious groups.
The Khizb ut-Takhrir detainees were among more than 900 people convicted of religious extremism, which were freed on March 10. But just three days before, up to 40 women, all related to imprisoned members of Khibz ut-Takhrir, were roughed up and arrested following an attempted demonstration at the Chor-su market in Tashkent.
The women were demanding the resignation of President Islam Karimov and the release of all those detained for religious reasons. Human rights organisations estimate that out of 6000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan, two-thirds belong to the Islamic movement.
A representative of Human Rights Watch in Uzbekistan witnessed the arrested women being forced onto a bus and driven away with a police escort. A ministry of interior spokesman could not tell IWPR where the women had been taken or what had happened to them.
Rhusnutdin Kutbetdinov and Yusuf Rasulov, correspondents for Radio Liberty and Voice of America respectively, reported on the protest. After they left the market place, about 20 plain-clothes police caught up with them and started to beat them. “The beating lasted about 20 minutes, when we fell down they started kicking us and grabbed our bags, which contained our equipment and the recordings we had made with the women at the protest," said Kutbetdinov.
The journalists are convinced that the officers who beat them were from the ministry of interior. Around 15 uniformed officers looked on without intervening, they said. Interior ministry official Ilya Pyagai denied that men from his department has been involved, saying the accusations were “ an act of provocation”.
The incident is regarded as an ominous development by journalists and human rights activists. “Usually, when we cover protests like this, interior ministry or security service employees film us, photograph us and follow us, but this is the first time there has been violence,” said Rasulov.
Campaigners claim that most of those imprisoned for membership of Khizb ut-Takhrir have no clear case against them. Moreover, the conditions of the amnesty for those released on March 10 were humiliating, said Matilda Bogner, a representative of Human Rights Watch. “Prisoners were forced to sign a statement addressed to President Karimov, admitting they were guilty, renouncing their beliefs and promising to work with the government and expose people involved in anti-government activity,” she said.
"For you, dear president, I am prepared to give my life. After my release, I will immediately tell the police of any political or religious activity I become aware of and help the state to liquidate it. Otherwise, I will consider myself guilty," one prisoner recalls writing under the direction of prison staff.
Those who refused to sign the statements were tortured, beaten and forced to eat pork, according to Human Rights Watch.
In general, religious prisoners must jump through many more hoops than others in order to be released. Unlike other inmates, they must present a guarantee, stamped and signed by the authorities confirming their place of residence. Prison officers often drag the process out, finding "mistakes" in the documents and demanding one form after another. Relatives often end up paying bribes to speed up the procedure.
“Why isn't a thief, or any other kind of criminal, required to produce a letter of repentance when he is amnestied? Why are they released without any problems, while we have to produce all these papers?” asked a Khizb ut-Takhrir member from Margilan who was among those released under the recent amnesty.
Analysts say the answer is clear - the authorities offered an amnesty not because they have grown more tolerant of dissent, but because they believe that the terms of release will further break the spirit and resolve of their opponents.
Khalmukhammed Sobirov is the pseudonym of an independent journalist in Andijan.
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