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More than 2,000 religious prisoners languish in Uzbekistan, U.S. agency reports

The government of Uzbekistan continues to jail “over 2,000 peaceful religious believers — more than the entire population of religious prisoners in all the former Soviet states combined and one of the largest in the world,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported Wednesday.

The panel, an independent bipartisan federal commission chartered to monitor religious freedom around the globe, said “the vast majority” of prisoners profiled in the report “have made credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment.”

Thousands of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan have now served sentences of more than 20 years, the report indicated, “some of the longest religion-related sentences on record in the world.” In addition, “multiple family members across generations” are often imprisoned on religion-related charges.

“Vast numbers of religious prisoners” were convicted only on allegations of membership in “banned” religious groups without evidence of a connection to or involvement with violence, the commission noted.

And, the USCIRF report said, “many” of those currently jailed in Uzbekistan “were forcibly returned” from abroad.

While the landlocked Central Asian nation of 32.8 million people has made considerable progress since the 2016 death of Islam Karimov, who ruled Uzbekistan for the first 25 years of its post-Soviet existence, there is still room for improvement, experts said.

Steve Swerdlow, an attorney who visited Uzbekistan to investigate the situation and who wrote the USCIRF report, said the government — and especially the state security services — have had to balance freedom with concerns about terrorism, particularly originating in neighboring Afghanistan.

“On religious freedom in general there’s a lot more freedom of expression,” Mr. Swerdlow told an online briefing about the findings. “There’s a lot more religious practice in Uzbek society, which has been taking place.”

At the same time, he said, “there’s still I think, a core systemic issue, which is that its security services continue to have [an] outsized influence on all these decisions that are being made.”

Although Mr. Karimov reportedly completed the Islamic hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, critics allege he was not a friend of religious liberty, even for other Muslims in his country. “Beginning in the early 1990s and then exponentially increasing by the end of the decade, Karimov’s security services’ tactics led to the imprisonment of thousands of peaceful independent Muslims — those who exercise their religion outside of strict state controls,” the USCIRF report stated.

At the peak of Mr. Karimov’s power, the commission reported, there were as many as 7,000 to 10,000 political and religious prisoners in the nation’s jails. A state “blacklist” of supposed “religious extremists” was established with tens of thousands of names enrolled.

Current Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a prime minister under Mr. Karimov, has removed more than 20,000 “independent Muslims and their relatives” from the blacklist and released an “undetermined group of religious prisoners.” Yet thousands remain behind bars, USCIRF said.

“This report presented today does not take away from Uzbekistan’s successes, but rather highlights an area that still needs substantial reform,” USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza said in remarks opening the discussion.

Nury Turkel, the commission‘s vice chair, detailed the cases of Mukhitdin Saidovich, 53, and 42-year-old Farrukh Yuldashev, both observant Muslims. He said both were tortured, and Mr. Yuldashev’s seven-year sentence from 2000 has been extended several times. Mr. Mukhitdin and his two sons have also received lengthy prison sentences of 12 and 11 years for the sons and 15 years for the father, Mr. Turkel said.

“There is no credible evidence that these individuals, or the other 79 profiled in the report, participated in or were connected to violence, threats of violence, or incitement to violence or any other criminal conduct,” Mr. Turkel declared.

Mr. Swerdlow, who investigated conditions during his visit to Uzbekistan, said that while the nation’s constitution acknowledges individual rights to religious expression, “the religion laws written now still reinforce this idea that the state [is] the ultimate decision-maker, and that does need to change.”

He said a positive sign is that the small number of Christians in the nation are allowed to practice more freely — though there are still those in the government who harbor concerns about the faith spreading and growing.

“I think that really does need to be corrected,” Mr. Swerdlow said. “I think it speaks to this deeper issue that relates to politics as well as religion, which is that these decisions about expression, about critical thought, about religious practice, do belong to the individual,” he added.

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