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

Uzbekistan: Religious Trial Controversy

Prosecution of a Jehovah's Witness is viewed as latest attempt to check growth of Christian faiths.
By Olga Borisova

The criminal trial of a young Jehovah's Witness is being seen as the latest attempt by the authorities to crack down on non-traditional religious groups.


Tashkent resident Marat Mudarisov is standing trial at the capital's Akmal-Ikram district court accused of undermining the constitution and spreading ideas that offend the national and religious convictions of the Uzbek people.


He is being charged under a law restricting religious freedom and education, which was passed in May 1998 after a series of confrontations between the state and fundamentalist Islamic organisations such as the Wahhabi movement.


However, this is the first time that spreading the teaching of the Jehovah's Witnesses has been treated as a criminal offence - all previous cases have been deemed administrative transgressions. If convicted, Mudarisov faces up to eight years in prison.


The case is now causing controversy after the accused's mother testified that she was forced to sign a confession denouncing her son after intense pressure from a state security official.


And civil rights organisations have hit out at the authorities, claiming that the trial is "a direct violation of a person's right to religious freedom".


Matilda Bogner of Human Rights Watch told IWPR that she believes the Mudarisov case is being used as a show trial, after the authorities failed to stop Jehovah's Witnesses gaining popularity in the predominantly Muslim state.


"When the Uzbek authorities allowed the group to register in Fergana and Chirchik, they didn't expect the movement to gain strength. It is possible that this case was brought to a criminal court to reduce its influence," she said.


Irina, a young member of the religion who did not want to give her full name, said that while official figures are not available, there are believed to be around 3,500 Jehovah's Witnesses in the capital alone.


Members of the faith told IWPR that they believe the trial is intended to frighten other young people away from them.


"In the past, our members also faced charges but they only had to pay fines. I think the authorities want to scare us, but it will not make us turn our backs on our religion," she said," said Irina.


The prosecution claims that on July 20, 2002, National Security Service, NSS, officers caught Mudarisov in possession of religious literature, Russian-language books and an Uzbek-language brochure, which were deemed to "inflame religious and ethnic discord".


But the defendant's mother Nuriya told IWPR that she had accompanied her son to the local NSS office the previous day at the request of an officer called Ilkhom Tulamov, who asked the accused to bring examples of Jehovah's Witnesses' literature with him.


"We both went into Tulamov's office, and he told us that he had summoned us because two people from the Jehovah's Witnesses had written a denunciation of my son," she said.


She claims that following "moral and physical pressure" from the NSS official, she was then forced to sign a statement condemning her son and his religious beliefs.


The NSS then passed the case over to the Akmal-Ikram internal affairs department, which then took the case to court.


The defendant's lawyer Rustam Satdanov told IWPR that his client's case has been marred by a number of procedural violations. He said the NSS should have completed the investigation rather than passing it on to another body and the court's decision to keep Muradisov in custody throughout the trial was a breach of his civil rights.


Analysts fear that the Mudarisov case may be the start of a tougher government line on non-traditional religious groups following a series of crackdowns aimed at wiping out extremist Islamic organisations.


The activities of evangelical Christian groups operating in the former Soviet republic have already been restricted, with many denied official registration.


A 1998 law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations forbids the mainly Sunni Muslim population from changing their faiths, prevents religious education in schools or in private homes, and requires all religions to have at least 100 members before they're considered for official registration.


Following a serious bombing incident in Tashkent on 1999 - which was blamed on Islamic extremists - the authorities began to hunt down and arrest those suspected of belonging to such groups. This hard line approach resulted in an increase in the number of Christian groups and their followers - which has further alarmed the authorities.


Olga Borisova is a correspondent for IWPR in Uzbekistan


More IWPR's Global Voices