Uzbekistan "Harshening Crackdown" On Religious Freedom And Media, groups say

Thursday, February 8, 2007

By BosNewsLife News Center

TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- A major Christian rights group expressed concern Wednesday, February 7, about Uzbekistan's "harshening crackdown on religious freedom."

United Kingdom based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said its observations contradict a recent media campaign launched by the government which claims the country does respect religious tolerance.

The campaign began after the United States designated Uzbekistan as a 'Country of Particular Concern' (CPC) in November 2006.

United Kingdom-CSW said that an "anti-Protestant and anti-Jehovah’s Witness campaign has seen increasing restrictions, including inspections of all religious communities, religious investigations in schools, police raids, closures and destruction of churches and mosques, and the expulsion of foreigners linked with religious communities.

However in a statement to BosNewsLife, CSW stressed that, "the majority religious community, Islam, is also suffering." It cited reports that authorities in the strongly Muslim Andijan region of the country have instituted a new ban on the Muslim call to prayer from mosques.


Another court reportedly ordered the confiscation and burning of Christian literature and the government’s Religious Affairs Committee has banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from importing Bibles. Security forces have also raided churches, several human rights groups and churches ay.

An evangelical pastor was believed to be behind bars in Uzbekistan Wednesday, February 7, more than two weeks after he was detained by secret police on charges of "incitement to hatred on national, racial or religious grounds."

Dmitry Shestakov, 37, was captured Sunday, January 21, by secret police who visited him in his Full Gospel Church in the tense town of Andijan, fellow Christians said this week.

Uzbekistan's state-run television has also promoted anti-Protestant and anti-Jehovah’s Witness sentiments, Christians and other observers have said.


This "propaganda campaign" is also being mounted outside Uzbekistan, CSW claimed, "with recent Uzbek government sponsored meetings in Brussels and this week in London." The Uzbek Embassy in the UK is reportedly organizing a day seminar on “Uzbekistan ’s experience in achieving inter-religious harmony."

CSW National Director Stuart Windsor told BosNewsLife that the "Uzbek government has an appalling record on religious freedom, which has led to their designation as a 'Country of Particular Concern' by the US State Department. Sadly, the government has chosen to respond to this designation by covering up the problem rather than tackling the root causes."

He said his group has urged the international community to look "beyond this façade and instead take action to uphold international standards on religious freedom." However it has become increasingly difficult for foreign and domestic observers including journalists, to uncover religious and political tensions in the former Soviet Republic.

In a statement to BosNewsLife, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said it is currently especially concerned about the imprisonment of media researcher Umida Niazova, "who has been detained by authorities in Uzbekistan due to work she has done for non-governmental organizations."


Niazova, was arrested near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on January 22 "and was not permitted to talk to her lawyer until 26 January," the group claimed.

The IFJ has previously protested the alleged abuses of press freedom and human rights in Uzbekistan. "The government has in the past expelled foreign journalists who covered protests and tried to curtail media coverage under the guise of “fighting terrorism.” Uzbek journalists have been jailed and beaten when they attempted to cover protests" in the country, the group said.

"It appears that Umida is being charged by authorities in an attempt to put an end to her media and human rights work," said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White. "We are calling on the authorities to immediate release Umida or provide evidence that she has in fact broken the law."

Niyazova was contributing to the research of the Danish NGO International Media Support (IMS) about how 'extremism' and 'terrorism' is covered in the local media when she was arrested. She also worked for human rights NGO Human Rights Watch and Veritas, an unregistered Uzbek nongovernmental human rights organization. Human Rights Watch said Niazova has been charged with bringing "extremist" literature across the border and illegal border crossing.

If convicted of both charges she could face jail time of up to 20 years. (With reports from Uzbekistan.

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