APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020

Uzbekistan has 32 million people, with over 80 per cent seen as having a Muslim background. Systemic violations of many human rights continue. All exercise of freedom of religion or belief without state permission remains illegal. The regime directly controls all public expression of Islam through the state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims, and manifestations of Shi’a Islam are forbidden.

Serious violations of freedom of religion and belief continue, including Muslims being jailed for discussing their faith online. On 14 August five were jailed, three given restricted freedom sentences. The mother of one stated that “the young men did not even know each other well. Most of them met for the first time on social media where they were asking questions about Islam”. As in other recent cases where Muslims have been jailed for their beliefs, police used an agent provocateur to provide false evidence and the men were tortured, yet despite binding legal international human rights obligations no arrests or trials of suspect torturers will happen as according to one official “all the actions of the investigators were lawful”.

On 31 March, a surgeon, Dr Alimardon Sultonov, known for discussing the lack of freedom of religion and belief for Muslims, had called the local medical emergency service to ask about COVID-19 cases. This prompted five officials to arrive to question him, confiscate a computer with religious texts, and open a criminal case against him. Among the charges he faces is a new Criminal Code Article 244-5 (“Dissemination of knowingly false information about an infectious disease”).

In May 2018, new restrictive requirements were added to the Religion Law for seeking state permission to exist. In 2020 Shi’a Muslim, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant religious communities all had applications to exist refused. Often the excuse is the refusal of local authorities to provide documents as part of the complex, time-consuming and expensive application process. In some cases registration applications have led to reprisals, such as police demands that Protestant Christians renounce their faith.

The challenges faced by the small minority of Christians with a Muslim background have been underlined by the COVID-19 crisis. The only Christian family in one area already faced continual oppression from their relatives and neighbours; the father was unable to find work because of the obstacles put in place, then the family was refused aid from the village authorities’ distribution because of their Christian faith.

On 28 April 2020, USCIRF ‘upgraded’ Uzbekistan to its Special Watch List (SWL) “in recognition of the progress made, and, crucially, in expectation of continued reform in the year ahead.” They also noted that “although notable progress has been made, much remains to be done.”

On 13 October the regime was elected to the UN Human Rights Council despite failing to implement recommendations from: UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed; its last UN Universal Periodic Review in 2018; and May 2020 Concluding Observations of the UN Human Rights Committee.

An October 2020 Venice Commission / OSCE ODIHR opinion on a draft new Religion Law described it as “incompatible with international human rights standards;” another commentator stated “if Uzbekistan misses this last reform opportunity and passes a flawed religion law, life will remain difficult for non-threatening religious groups while any security gains will be a mirage.” Officials have not explained why a draft which they knew seriously failed to implement human rights was sent for review. One Muslim noted that: “The draft Law is only an advertisement for Uzbekistan aimed at international organisations and foreign states. If the authorities wanted real freedom for the people, then the draft Law would have been very different.”

FCDO Human Rights Report 2020

Uzbekistan continued to move in the right direction in several human rights areas, especially women’s rights and efforts to reduce forced labour. Legislative reform was under consideration regarding civil society and freedom of religion or belief…

Uzbekistan continued to allow the practice of all major religions, and ensure their protection under the law. In December, the US removed Uzbekistan from its ‘Special Watch List’ for religious freedom, in recognition of continued progress with reform in this area. The Government submitted a draft law on religious freedom to the Venice Commission, reflecting continued openness and engagement on freedom of religion or belief. The Venice Commission responded, and the international community submitted a number of comments and recommendations on the draft, including on the registration of new religious groups, which remained heavily controlled by local authorities. The Government did not respond to these recommendations during 2020. There were also reports that the authorities retained significant control and influence in a number of areas relating to Islam, particularly the control of sermons.

APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019

Uzbekistan has over 32 million people, with over 80 per cent being ethnic Uzbeks (seen as having a Sunni Muslim background). Other ethnic groups, except Slavs, are also seen as mainly having a Sunni Muslim background.

Systemic violations of many human rights continue to take place. Despite regime promises, there has not been systemic protection of freedom of religion and belief for all and other human rights.

Some improvements include, in 2018, freeing some but not all Muslims jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief, and not imposing long jail terms on three Muslims found with Islamic texts on mobile phones.

All exercise of freedom of religion or belief without state permission remains illegal, and all sharing of any beliefs is banned. In May 2018, the regime added new restrictive requirements for religious seeking state permission and refused to explain why, instead of abolishing restrictions, the regime has increased them.

In 2019 there has been less targeting of smaller vulnerable communities, but Muslims continue to be routinely targeted. A 33-year-old Tashkent Imam, Fazliddin Parpiyev, had to flee Uzbekistan in December 2018, two months after he appealed to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev about violations of freedom of religion or belief for the country’s Muslims. The Religious Affairs Committee, SSS secret police, ordinary police, Prosecutor’s Office and Muftiate officials immediately pressured and threatened him and his father after he issued a 7 September video appeal to President Mirziyoyev “[because] Muslims still suffer injustice and cannot have full freedom of religion and belief”. The same day, eight Religious Affairs Committee and SSS secret police officials visited him. Imam Parpiyev repeated his appeal at Friday prayers in his Tashkent mosque, and that evening he was visited and threatened by Religious Affairs Committee officials. The next day he was questioned, fired from his post and his father was forced to record a video appeal against his son. After more threats and a state-run TV programme attacking him, “I had to leave the country because I was afraid for my safety” he told Forum 18.

“Muslims on black lists … are periodically summoned to police stations and mahalla [district administration] committees for talks and warnings”, one human rights defender told Forum 18. One source used to identify Muslims for surveillance and warnings has been state-run competitions to find Koran Hafizes, people who have memorised the Koran. The SSS secret police then questioned
winners. Imams have also told Forum 18 that some of the competition winners were fined recently but declined to give details for fear of state reprisals. Human rights defenders, who asked not to be named for similar reasons, have told Forum 18 that the regime in August 2018 began rotating Imams, to break their influence over their mosque communities.

Torture continues to be frequent with impunity for torturers including those officials who on 17 April 2019 tortured Muslim prisoner of conscience Khayrullo Tursunov for six hours in the Labour Camp in which he is detained.

FCO Human Rights Report 2019

Uzbekistan allowed the practice of all major religions, which are protected by law. 2019 did not see the raids and arrests reported in 2018, but there were an increasing number of instances of anti-religious rhetoric, focused particularly on Islamic practise. Some men had their beards forcibly shaved, and some women were removed from higher education classes and told to remove their headscarves. Anecdotal reports also indicated that unofficial pressure was being placed on Imams about the content of their sermons.

In the UK Parliament, 2020

No questions asked.

USCIRF report 2021

US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2020