Date: November 26, 2021
Freedom of religion and belief, with interlinked freedoms of expression,
association, and assembly, remains severely restricted in Uzbekistan. Forum
18's survey analysis documents violations including: jailing and torturing
prisoners of conscience whose only crime is to exercise their freedom of
religion and belief; banning education and worship meetings without state
permission; complete state control of all expressions of Islam; and
religious literature censorship and destruction.
UZBEKISTAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2021
By Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18, and John Kinahan, Forum 18
Freedom of religion and belief, with interlinked freedoms of expression,
association, and assembly, remains severely restricted in Uzbekistan. Forum
18's survey analysis of freedom of religion and belief documents among
- the regime's election to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council,
despite ignoring multiple recommendations from the UN Universal Periodic
Review, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the
UN Human Rights Committee, among others;
- a harsh 2021 Religion Law, adopted in secrecy and against recommendations
to bring the Law into line with the regime's legally binding international
human rights obligations from the UN, the Council of Europe's Venice
Commission, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's
(OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The Law
also ignores multiple recommendations from the people the unelected regime
rules to stop making the exercise of freedom of religion and belief
- proposals to adopt a new Criminal Code from 2022, which in the only draft
so far released also continues to make the exercise of human rights a
- attempts to impose complete state control of all expressions of Islam,
including banning all public manifestations of Islam outside the
state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate), the
targeting for surveillance of devout Muslims, barring Shias from opening
more mosques, barring under-18-year-olds from attending mosques, especially
during Ramadan, with the use of police agent provocateurs jailing and
torturing Muslim men who meet informally to discuss Islam and learn to
pray, and corruption and restrictions on the haj pilgrimage;
- banning religious teaching without state permission, and severe
restrictions on the teaching which the state might permit;
- the imposition of state censorship of all religious texts, with
wide-ranging literature bans and bans on public discussion of religious
- a complex and arbitrary process of applying for state registration or
permission for religious communities to exist, which provides multiple
opportunities for officials to seek bribes and appears designed to
- jailing and torturing prisoners of conscience whose only crime is to
exercise their freedom of religion and belief.
Uzbekistan has the third largest surface area of the five Central Asian
states and, with around 35 million people, the largest population.
Government statistics state that over 83 per cent of the population are
ethnic Uzbeks (regarded as being of mostly Sunni Muslim background), with
about 9 per cent from other Central Asian ethnicities (regarded as being of
mostly Sunni Muslim background). Russians and other ethnicities (regarded
as being of mostly Christian Orthodox background) are thought to make up
around 7 per cent.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has run Uzbekistan since September 2016, and
has (like his predecessor Islam Karimov) never won an election judged free
and fair (https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/uzbekistan&source=gmail&ust=1638155086979000&usg=AOvVaw2SUYGpFcGJQhC7L0cNAguj">https://www.osce.org/odihr/el
international observers. Local and international human rights defenders
have documented cases of electoral fraud, corruption, and many violations
of human rights and the rule of law. Despite large mineral and other
resources, much of the population remains in poverty.
The regime's basic approach appears to be that society must be under state
control and so human rights – including the freedom of religion and
belief - may only be exercised with state permission. Former UN Special
Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt noted in his
August 2016 report (https://www.google.com/url?q=https://undocs.org/A/71/269&source=gmail&ust=1638155086979000&usg=AOvVaw2sze7pRLRNjOEg5qCdEodw">https://undocs.org/A/71/269) that this freedom is
linked to other freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of
peaceful assembly and association. "There can be no free religious
community life without respect for those other freedoms, which are closely
intertwined with the right to freedom of religion or belief itself," he
observed. "This is exactly what worries authoritarian Governments and often
causes them to curb freedom of religion or belief."
Freedom of religion or belief is restricted by both published law and the
long-standing actions of the regime and its officials to arbitrarily and
with impunity violate human rights. Women exercising their freedom of
religion and belief are particularly vulnerable to targeting by male
officials in this highly patriarchal society, with strong social pressures
against women speaking out about such human rights violations.
Corruption remains endemic, including within business life and the ties of
influential business figures with the regime. Many are reluctant to discuss
corruption as a factor in the human rights violations they experience, yet
there appears to be a strong connection between human rights violations and
It was suggested confidentially to Forum 18 that corruption may have been a
factor in a long-threatened demolition by a private company of Tashkent's
Ashkenazi Synagogue and 2020 claim for "compensation" from the Jewish
community. As the Jewish community could demonstrate that it had owned the
land and synagogue since 1973, it is unclear why a court in 2017 gave the
company a building permit to demolish the synagogue. No official was
willing to explain how a company could be handed property that belongs to a
religious organisation whose ownership is recorded on the State Land
Registry. The threat to the synagogue was only withdrawn in August 2020
after the case attracted international attention.
Uzbekistan scores poorly on Transparency International's Corruption
Perceptions Index, in 2020 ranking 146 out of 180 countries.
"Legal" framework a symptom not a cause of human rights violations
Numerous articles in the Religion Law, Criminal Code and Code of
Administrative Offences are used to restrict and punish anyone exercising
their freedom of religion and belief and related human rights without state
permission. Legal charges brought against people do not necessarily reflect
what they actually did. This can lead to people being charged using laws
punishing the exercise of freedom of religion and belief, when this freedom
is not involved in the actions they actually carried out.
Accusations can also be terrorism-related (typically against devout
Muslims) without any credible evidence. A symptom of this attitude is the
long-standing involvement of police "Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism
Department" officers in human rights violations against people of all
Trials are often conducted unfairly, and officials who violate laws appear
to be never prosecuted or punished. The United Nations (UN) Special
Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán,
stated in September 2019 that "substantial threats against judicial
independence and the rule of law remain". He pointed to the heavy and
constant presence of the security services throughout society and in state
institutions. He was also concerned about prosecutors' broad powers in
criminal proceedings which limit the independence of judges.
There are credible claims made of fabricated evidence and flagrant
violations of due process in trials. Unclear terminology - such as
"extremism" – is used to violate international human rights law and
leaves much room for frequently exercised arbitrary official
A new 26 March 2020 Criminal Code Article 244-5 ("Dissemination of
knowingly false information about an infectious disease") was introduced in
the coronavirus pandemic. Doctor Alimardon Sultonov, a Muslim trauma
surgeon known for discussing Muslim freedom of religion and belief issues,
on 30 March questioned why local authorities had publicly stated that there
were no coronavirus cases in his area. "I had access to the statistics
centre database", Dr Sultonov noted, "and have read that the number of
deaths was 20." After Dr Sultonov called, five police, Interior Ministry,
and State Security Service (SSS) secret police officers came from the
regional capital Nukus to question him, confiscate a computer with
religious texts, and then open a criminal case against him using Article
244-5 and other articles. The restricted freedom sentence he was given and
subsequent threats focused on public discussion of Muslims' freedom of
religion or belief, not on infectious diseases.
Officials monitor all exercise of freedom of religion and belief. The SSS
secret police carries out both covert and open surveillance of all
religious communities. Members of a variety of religious communities have
told Forum 18 of hidden microphones in places of worship, the presence of
SSS secret police agents during meetings for worship, and the recruitment
of spies within communities – including among leaders.
Member of UN Human Rights Council, yet ignores human rights obligations
Uzbekistan was on 13 October 2020 elected to the UN Human Rights Council.
The Council oversees the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of member states'
implementation of their legally-binding human rights obligations, and the
regime was elected despite ignoring UPR recommendations on freedom of
religion and belief it claimed in 2018 it accepted
The regime has, among other recommendations, also ignored: September 2017
recommendations from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or
Belief (A/HRC/37/49/Add.2 (https://www.google.com/url?q=https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/37/49/Add.2)&source=gmail&ust=1638155086979000&usg=AOvVaw3-3_azvHeTbxxFKbjieMPI">https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/3
2020 Concluding Observations of the UN Human Rights Committee
the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security
and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and
Human Rights (ODIHR) on the draft Religion Law. Many of these
recommendations have also been previously made by human rights defenders
and others the regime rules.
2021 Religion Law adopted in secrecy, ignored people the regime rules
The drafting and adoption of the 2021 Religion Law took place almost
entirely in secret, with only infrequent public announcements of progress.
It came into force on 6 July 2021, and only then were the people the regime
governs allowed to read the text of the law the regime imposed on them.
Members of religious communities and human rights defenders repeatedly
expressed their frustration to Forum 18 about the secrecy of the drafting
process, and the regime's lack of willingness to end restrictions violating
human rights obligations. No official of the Senate, the Presidential
Administration, the Justice Ministry, or the Religious Affairs Committee
would discuss this with Forum 18.
A Protestant who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals
told Forum 18: "We do not understand why a 2021 Religion Law is needed if
the current Law is not going to be improved in any of its essential
points." A Muslim who asked to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals
told Forum 18: "We need to understand that the draft Religion 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 from what it actually is."
Among the excuses the regime used, Afzal Artykov, Head of the International
Relations Section of the Senate, claimed to Forum 18: "88 per cent of the
population are Uzbeks. We need to take into account their wishes and
desires first of all, and our historical context and the national
mentality." He did not explain why his claim to "take into account" the
alleged "wishes and desires" of some of the population led to ignoring
human rights defenders and members of religious and belief communities, as
well as not holding free and fair elections.
Among the many changes the people the regime rules would like to see in the
Religion Law and a proposed draft Criminal Code (see below) are:
- an end to compulsory state registration as a requirement for religious
communities to exist and the intrusive controls it brings, in line with the
regime's international human rights obligations;
- an end to the requirement for communities allowed to exist to give
advance notice of meetings and the participants and topics discussed;
- an end to the ban on Muslim women wearing the hijab or other religious
- an end to the ban on Muslim men wearing beards at work place or places of
- an end to the ban on teaching religion privately, an end to the ban on
private teaching of Islam to children or opening new madrassahs [religious
- an end to the ban on opening mosques which not run by the
state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate);
- and an end to the ban on praying with others outside state-registered
places of worship in homes.
The 2021 Religion Law
The latest 2021 Religion Law rests on the regime's hostility to the rule of
law and the exercise of freedom of religion or belief and other human
rights, revealed in the underlying claim that human rights can be exercised
only with state permission. This hostility is also revealed in what the
Venice Commission and OSCE ODIHR Joint Opinion describes as: "vague and
overbroad wording, which give too wide discretion to those public
authorities tasked with implementation, thus potentially leading to
arbitrary application/interpretation and undue restriction to the right of
freedom of religion or belief".
Article 5 describes one of the state's aims in enacting policy on freedom
of religion and belief: "to counter the implanting and spread of various
religious ideas and views threatening public order, health, morals and
rights of individuals".
Article 4 bans, among other things, "the use of religion with the aim of
violent change to the constitutional order, violation of territorial
integrity, Uzbekistan's sovereignty, the denigration of the Constitutional
rights and freedoms of citizens, propaganda of war and national, racial,
ethnic or religious hatred, causing harm to the health and morals of
citizens, violation of civil accord, the spread of slanderous fabrications
destabilising the situation, the creation of panic among the population and
the carrying out of other actions directed at the person, society and the
Criminal Code Article 156, Part 2 bans: "Deliberate acts intended to
humiliate ethnic honour and dignity, insult the religious or atheistic
feelings of individuals, carried out with the purpose of inciting hatred,
intolerance, or divisions on a national, ethnic, racial, or religious
basis, as well as the explicit or implicit limitation of rights or
preferences on the basis of national, racial, or ethnic origin, or
This Article has been used against members of smaller religious
communities. As Protestants within Uzbekistan have noted, the state's own
incitement of religious intolerance and hatred violates this part of the
Criminal Code. No officials are known to have been prosecuted under this
Religion Law Article 9 bans registered religious organisations from
"carrying out forcible financial collections and levies on believers, as
well as conducting other measures harming the honour and worth of the
The regime has produced no evidence of these problems existing, and the
bans are already included in laws of general applicability which cover such
actions by anyone.
- Wide-ranging ban on "illegal" exercise of freedom of religion and belief
Religion Law Article 3 identifies "illegal religious activity" as
"activities without registration as a religious organisation, the
implementation by a religious organisation of activities outside its
[legally allowed] location, including religious and prayer buildings and
territories belonging to a religious organisation, as well as engaging in
religious educational activities privately outside religious educational
The ban on the exercise of freedom of religion and belief without state
permission, along with severe restrictions on what might be permitted, is
underpinned by various articles in the Criminal Code and the Administrative
Administrative Code Article 240 ("Violation of the Religion Law"), Part 1
punishes: "Carrying out of unauthorised religious activity, evasion by
leaders of religious organisations of registration of the charter of the
organisation, and the organisation and conduct of special children's and
youth meetings, as well as vocational, literature and other study groups
not related to carrying out worship". Punishments range from fines of 50 to
100 base units (5 to 10 months' average wage) to being jailed for up to 15
Criminal Code Article 216-2, Part 1 punishes: "Illegal religious activity,
evasion of registration of a religious organisation's charter by its
leaders, conducting special meetings for young people, work groups, and
other circles and groups, unrelated to worship, by religious leaders and
members of religious organisations." Punishments range from a fine of
between 50 and 100 base units (5 to 10 months' average wage), community
service, between one and three years' restricted freedom, or up to three
years in prison.
Holding meetings for worship without state permission is also punishable
under Administrative Code Article 201, Part 2 ("Violation of the procedure
for holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious
ceremonies"). Punishments are fines of 80 to 100 base units (8 to 10
months' average wage) or imprisonment for up to 15 days.
This "crime" is also punishable under Criminal Code Article 216 "Illegal
establishment or reactivation of illegal public associations or religious
organisations, as well as active participation in their activities".
- Exercise of freedom of religion or belief in venues without state
Religion Law Article 9 specifies where registered religious communities are
allowed to conduct unspecified "religious rites and ceremonies". These
include in registered places of worship, places of pilgrimage, cemeteries
and "in cases of ritual necessity" in homes at individuals' request. There
is no information about who makes such decisions, what the criteria may be,
and whether any appeal is possible.
This provision – which repeats the wording of the previous Religion Law -
bans individuals and religious communities from organising meetings for
worship or other religious purposes anywhere without state permission for
the location. For example, the Joint Opinion notes that this might be used
to ban "any activity at home".
Registered religious communities must give advance notice of meetings and
other activities, as well as information about the participants and topics
discussed. Article 12 requires registered religious organisations "to
notify the Justice bodies on the conducting of events (conferences,
seminars and others, with the exception of [undefined] religious rituals
and ceremonies) for provision of support for their free conduct".
Under Article 3, all such events are illegal unless officials have given
The Religion Law continues the requirement set out in a June 2018 Justice
Ministry Decree, under which non-commercial organisations (including
religious organisations) must inform the Ministry or the local Justice
Department of plans to hold events such as seminars or conferences away
from their registered premises. They must give 10 days' notice or – if
any foreign citizens are involved – 20 days' notice.
A religious community the state allows to exist must give the reasons for
any event, the address, date and time, how many people are due to attend,
what type of people they are (students, women, children), sources of
finance, and provide copies of any literature or audio-visual material that
will be used at the event. Any foreign citizens attending have to be named,
with information on their citizenship and date of birth.
Justice Ministry officials can ban such events if religious communities
fail to submit full information or if the proposed event is not in line
with the law. If religious events go ahead without notifying the Justice
Ministry or in defiance of a Justice Ministry ban, the organisers can face
Administrative Code Article 202 already punishes: "Granting to the
participants of gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations without
state permission premises or other property (means of communication,
copying and other machines, equipment, transportation), or the creation of
other conditions for conducting such activity". Punishments are fines of
between 50 and 100 base units (5 to 10 months' average wage) for ordinary
citizens, and between 70 and 150 base units for officials.
- Religious teaching without state permission banned
Article 3 of the Religion Law defines "illegal religious activity" as
including "engaging in religious educational activities privately outside
religious educational institutions". A "religious educational
establishment" is defined as "an institution associated with a specific
confession created by a central organ of administration of [registered]
centralised religious organisations of Uzbekistan to prepare professional
officials of religious organisation and necessary religious personnel for
Only these institutions can provide such education, which must lead to
specific roles. Individuals who wish to learn about a particular faith
without taking up an official role, as well as religious communities who
may wish to offer informal non-certified education, are barred from doing
Article 17 states that only centralised religious organisations registered
by the Justice Ministry can establish religious educational establishments.
Before applying to register such institutions, a centralised religious
organisation needs an "assessment" from the Religious Affairs Committee.
The Committee has no obligation to provide reasons or a way to appeal if
the "assessment" is not favourable.
Religious communities which have been unable to register centralised
religious organisations, or do not have communities in at least 8 of the
country's 14 regions, cannot even try to register a religious educational
establishment. Nor could several communities of different religious
communities set up a joint religious educational establishment.
Article 11 allows religious educational establishments to function only
after the Justice Ministry has registered them and the Religious Affairs
Committee has given them a state licence. Only adults would be allowed to
study in such institutions, under Article 8. Everyone teaching a religious
subject in such institutions "must have professional religious education".
- Sharing beliefs with others and other undefined other activities banned
Article 3 of the Religion Law defines "missionary activity" as "activities
for the compulsory imposition of religious views and the dissemination of
religious teachings by purposefully exerting ideological influence on a
person (or group of persons) with the aim of converting him (them) to one's
religion". "Proselytism" is defined as "a form of missionary activity,
expressed in the conversion of believers from one denomination to another".
Article 7 bans "carrying out missionary activity and proselytism", and
claims that the regime "acts as a guarantor of the peaceful coexistence of
Article 7 also bans undefined "activities which offend the religious
feelings of believers". This potentially allows officials to arbitrarily
ban almost any exercise of the freedom of religion or belief, or the
interlinked freedom of expression.
Criminal Code Article 216-2, Part 2 punishes: "Attracting believers of one
faith to another (proselytism) and other missionary activity, after the
application of penalties under the Administrative Code for similar
activities" with punishments of a fine, community service, one to three
years' restricted freedom, or up to three years in prison.
Sharing beliefs is also punished by current Administrative Code Article
240, Part 2 ("Attracting believers of one confession to another
(proselytism) and other missionary activity"). Punishments are fines of 50
to 100 base units (5 to 10 months' average wage) or imprisonment for up to
- Religious censorship
The Religion Law continues the prior compulsory state censorship of all
"materials of religious content". Article 10 defines these as all printed
and electronic materials, including on the internet, as well as signs and
symbols, "expressing the dogmatic bases, history and ideology of the
teaching and commentary on it, the practice of rituals of different
religious faiths, as well as an evaluation from a religious position of
individual personalities, historical facts and events".
Article 10 states that the Cabinet of Ministers sets out the procedure for
individuals and legal entities to be allowed to produce, import or
distribute materials about religion: "Production, import or distribution of
materials of religious content on the territory of the Republic of
Uzbekistan is carried out after receiving a positive conclusion of a
religious studies expert analysis with the aim of preventing the spread in
society of ideas and views capable of destroying inter-religious accord and
religious tolerance and calling for violence and outrages on a religious
Such alleged "expert analyses" are routinely used as an excuse to
confiscate any book the regime decides to confiscate, as well as mobile
phones. Court verdicts seen by Forum 18 have ordered that such literature
– including Muslim books or Christian Bibles - be destroyed, which is
often carried out by burning.
The regime imposes total censorship of all printed and electronic religious
literature, and police often confiscate books which have passed the state's
compulsory censorship. This is backed by various Criminal and
Administrative Code articles.
Criminal Code Article 244-3 punishes: "Illegal production, storage, import
or distribution of religious literature". It carries – if there has been
a previous Administrative Code conviction - punishment of a fine of between
100 and 200 base units (10 to 20 months' average wage), or up to three
years' corrective labour.
Administrative Code Article 184-2 already punishes "Illegal production,
storage, or import into Uzbekistan, with the intent to distribute or actual
distribution, of religious materials by physical persons".
Criminal Code Article 244-1 punishes: "Production, storage, distribution or
display of materials containing a threat to public security and public
order". Its Part 2 punishes: "Dissemination of materials containing ideas
of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism, calls for pogroms
or violent eviction, or aimed at creating panic among the population, as
well as the use of religion for purposes of breach of civil concord,
dissemination of calumnious and destabilising fabrications, and committing
other acts aimed against the established rules of conduct in society and
The Article's Part 3 punishes this "crime" with prior planning or by groups
of individuals, Part 3 (b) punishes it by officials, Part 3 (c) punishes it
"with financial or other material aid from religious organisations, as well
as foreign states, organisations, and citizens", and Part 3 (d) punishes
"criminal" activities "using the mass media or telecommunication networks,
as well as the world wide web".
Possible punishments are fines of up to 400 base units (40 months' average
wage) or imprisonment (if as part of a conspiracy, of between 5 and 8
years). It is normally only used against Muslims exercising their freedom
of religion and belief.
- Burdensome and arbitrary registration approval
Religion Law Article 16 specifies that the Justice Ministry registers
centralised religious organisations and religious educational
establishments. Local Justice Departments in the 14 regions register local
However, under Article 17, applications for registration of any level of
religious organisation require an "assessment" from the Religious Affairs
Committee. This appears to give the Committee a power of veto. It remains
unclear how the Committee decides whether to approve an application or not,
nor what a community can do if the Committee refuses to give its approval.
Article 23 states that registration applications can also be rejected if
the regime does not recognise the applicant as "religious", without any
explanation of what that means.
Local religious communities also need an "assessment" from the regional
administration where they are located "with the attachment of a conclusion
on the appropriateness of the immovable property of a local religious
organisation which it proposes to use as its postal address, with the
demands of town-planning norms".
This "assessment" has normally been provided by mahalla (local district)
committees, which are theoretically independent but in practice under state
control. The 2014 Law on Prevention of Violations of the Law gives
wide-ranging powers to state bodes, including mahalla committees, as well
as non-state and non-commercial public organisations and ordinary citizens.
The Law allows individuals punished for or suspected of exercising freedom
of religion or belief to be placed on the Preventive Register, and to be
subjected to a wide range of restrictions. The normal targets for this are
devout Muslims (see below).
The Prevention Law also gives mahalla committees wide powers in
co-operation with the police. These include the requirement to "take
measures to prevent the activity of unregistered religious organisations,
ensure observance of rights of citizens to religious freedoms, not allow
forced propagation of religious views, consider other questions related to
observance of the Religion Law".
Under the Religion Law, religious community registration applications must
include information about the organisation's founders, and the founding
meeting, and – for centralised and local organisations – a document
confirming that the leader has appropriate religious education, unless the
community does not routinely give religious leaders education.
Under Article 24, the Justice Ministry is to include details of registered
religious communities in a publicly-accessible electronic register. Human
rights defenders and members of religious communities stated in November
2021 that it does not yet appear to be available, and no register appears
on the Justice Ministry website. The Religion Law states that the register
will include "information on the initiators (founders), participants
(surnames, first names and patronymics), and contact details". Many
individuals have in the past been unwilling to be identified as a founder
and therefore to provide their personal details to the regime for fear of
The number of adult citizens needed to apply to register a local religious
community was reduced from 100 to 50, all of whom must (unlike in the
previous Law) live in one town or district. Even with a lower number of
necessary founders, officials have many possibilities to reject
applications from communities they do not like, as has frequently happened.
No community with fewer than 50 adult citizen members can exercise freedom
of religion or belief collectively.
The October 2020 Venice Commission and OSCE ODIHR Joint Opinion on the
draft Law questions why religious communities require a higher threshold
for registration than public associations, which in Uzbekistan require 10
adult citizens. The Joint Opinion suggests that two people should be
enough, and states that: "It is recommended to remove the requirement of
citizenship and simply require permanent residence in Uzbekistan, and not
in a specific district/city."
Registration applications from non-Muslim communities have been and
continue to be frequently refused, and applications from Muslim communities
such as Shias and those who wish to operate outside the state-controlled
Muftiate have also been refused (see below).
If a registration application is successful, the religious community must
submit an annual report on its activities to the Justice Ministry or
regional Justice Departments.
Article 15 of the Religion Law notes that the registration process
(described as a "state service") is to be done online. Applications for
registration are to be submitted electronically and registration
certificates are held online in a registered religious community's online
Article 21 reduces the maximum time the Justice Ministry or regional
Justice Departments are allowed to consider registration applications to
Under Article 19, registered religious organisations must notify any
changes to their postal address, bank details or ruling body to the Justice
Ministry or regional Justice Departments electronically within one month.
- Enforced liquidation possible
Article 25 of the Religion Law allows officials to seek the liquidation of
registered religious organisations through the courts. Reasons for
liquidating a registered religious organisation include "violating
legislation by the religious organisation". A court can, at the request of
the Prosecutor's Office or Justice Ministry or Justice Department, suspend
a registered religious organisation for six months for "activities
contradicting the aims in its statute" or failing to correct "violations"
pointed out by these bodies.
Suspension or liquidation of a registered religious organisation means that
any exercise of freedom of religion and belief by members of such
communities becomes illegal and punishable under the Criminal or
- Independent mosques banned
The Religion Law does not specifically ban Muslim communities not
controlled by the state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims (the
Muftiate) from seeking state registration. However, officials have always
refused to register independent mosque communities without giving any
reason based on published law for why independent mosques not controlled by
the Muftiate cannot exist.
The last provision of Religion Law Article 14 – which specifies which
documents must accompany registration applications - states: "Statutes of
religious organisations which have centralised organs of administration
must be agreed by these organs."
Officials might interpret this provision in a way that prevents any mosque
without the approval of the state-controlled Muftiate (or Orthodox church
without the approval of the Russian Orthodox Church's Tashkent Diocese)
from seeking state registration.
- Restrictions on religious leaders
Article 11 of the Religion Law states: "The leader of a religious
organisation can be an individual having appropriate religious education,
with the exception of confessions whose doctrines do not envisage a system
of professional religious education."
Article 17 requires applications to register a centralised religious
organisation or a local religious organisation "with the exception of
confessions whose doctrines do not envisage a system of professional
religious education" to include "a document on the presence of religious
education" of the leader.
The Law does not explain why religious leaders need state approval for
their religious qualifications, nor define what level of religious
education is sufficient to satisfy officials, nor whether it matters where
this religious education was obtained.
Under a May 2018 Decree, religious communities seeking registration must
a notarised copy of Uzbekistan's official recognition of any official
foreign or Uzbek religious education that the head of a religious community
and a notarised copy of Uzbekistan's official recognition of any official
foreign or Uzbek religious education that the head of a religious
educational institution run by the community has completed.
There is no indication of what type of religious education, whether formal
or informal, is covered by this 2018 registration requirement.
Article 16 requires leaders or employees of a registered religious
organisation who are foreign citizens to be approved by the Justice
New Criminal Code to come?
In early 2021, the regime revealed plans to introduce a new Criminal Code
to come into force on 1 January 2022. The regime issued a draft text on 22
February 2021. As of late November 2021, no further drafts had been
published and the regime has not said whether it is pursuing plans to
change the current Criminal Code.
The February 2021 draft Code continues existing punishments for exercising
freedom of religion or belief without state permission, and moves several
punishments from the current Criminal Code to the Administrative Code. The
regime has not yet revealed a draft new Administrative Code.
Members of religious communities and human rights defenders told Forum 18
that "many people are not even aware that a draft new Criminal Code has
been published, or that it is being discussed in Parliament".
The February 2021 draft Code was "a disguised old Criminal Code with no
real changes", various Protestants, who asked to remain unnamed for fear of
state reprisals, told Forum 18 in March 2021. They pointed out that it
still contained criminal punishments for possessing religious literature,
for meetings for worship without state permission, and other normal parts
of exercising the freedom of religion and belief.
Muslims who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals agreed. "The
draft new Criminal Code Law is essentially the same as the current Criminal
Code. They just change some phraseology and the numbers of articles,"
several commented. One Muslim described the February 2021 draft Code as
"the same old, the same old. It is our government's old tricks. They
promise they will improve laws and our lives, but in fact they continue as
they always do."
Human Rights Watch stated in its 10 March 2021 analysis of the draft
that it offered "little meaningful reform".
An official who refused to give his name, who answered the phone of First
Deputy Chair of parliament's lower chamber and National Human Rights Centre
Director Akmal Saidov, refused to answer Forum 18's questions about why the
draft Criminal Code still violated international human rights obligations.
"You have no competence to ask for such changes," the official claimed
before putting the phone down.
Restrictions on the largest religious community
Islam, because it has the largest number of followers, is the community the
regime is most interested in controlling. Much of this control is from the
inside, including by appointing all permitted leaders and banning all
public manifestations of Islam outside the state-controlled Spiritual
Administration of Muslims (the Muftiate). The state through the Muftiate
also controls what imams preach, and the number and location of mosques.
The state completely controls the selection, education and nomination of
imams, in defiance of Article 61 of the Constitution: "Religious
organisations and associations are separate from the state and equal before
the law. The state does not interfere in the activities of religious
associations." It is virtually impossible for any potential imam to
graduate from a madrassah (Islamic religious college) if they are thought
by the state to be critical of the regime. The SSS secret police has
informers and agents among students, and students have told Forum 18 that
the SSS periodically summons them to be questioned about whether any
student is making critical comments about the regime.
Human rights defenders, who asked not to be named for fear of state
reprisals, have told Forum 18 that from about August 2018 the regime began
rotating Imams. "Regional religious affairs officials and Imams say this
was a Religious Affairs Committee decision to stop Imams becoming
influential," a human rights defender stated. The Religious Affairs
Committee also decided that Tashkent Imams should periodically travel to
regions to conduct Friday prayers.
The regime suppresses criticism of the Muftiate by Muslims, and is hostile
to expressions of Islam it does not control. A 33-year-old Tashkent Imam,
Fazliddin Parpiyev, had to flee Uzbekistan in December 2018, two months
after he appealed to President Mirziyoyev over violations of freedom of
religion or belief for the country's Muslims. Religious Affairs Committee,
SSS secret police, ordinary police, Prosecutor's Office, and Muftiate
officials immediately pressured and threatened him and his father. He was
fired from his post as imam and banned him from speaking about freedom of
religion and belief issues. In September 2018, state-run television
broadcast a programme attacking Imam Parpiyev which, he told Forum 18, had
influenced people against him. In December 2018 Tashkent Prosecutor's
Office again summoned Imam Parpiyev for another warning and "made threats
against me demanding that I must not make further public statements or talk
to independent media or human rights defenders about freedom of religion
and belief," Imam Parpiyev stated. "I had to leave the country [in December
2018] because I was afraid for my safety", he told Forum 18.
On 8 April 2019 Tulkun Tashmuradovich Astanov (born 25 April 1971) had a
meeting with Deputy Chief Mufti Abdulaziz Mansur to ask among other things
why the hijab is banned, why imams have to be appointed by the state and
preach sermons prepared for them by the state, and why the Muftiate does
not help Muslims when their freedom of religion and belief is violated.
Deputy Chief Mufti Mansur accused Astanov of being a "hooligan", and being
disrespectful to the Muftiate's alleged "spiritual leadership". The same
day Astanov was arrested and jailed for 15 days. In October 2019 he was
given a five year suspended prison term. After repeatedly defending the
freedom of religion and belief of Muslims, including demonstrating outside
President Mirziyoyev's residence, Astanov was on 27 November 2020 jailed
for five years. He has been tortured for praying in prison (see below).
On 26 June 2021 Fazilkhoja Arifkhojayev, a Muslim known for his criticisms
of the regime's religious policies, attended Tukhtaboy Mosque in Tashkent
to hear visiting preacher Abror Abduazimov preach and lead a discussion on
Islamic topics. Arifkhojayev asked Abduazimov why he insulted Muslims on
social media, and called Abduazimov a "hypocrite". He was arrested and a
Religious Affairs Committee "expert analysis" found what it claimed to be
"religious fundamentalism" on his phone. Two days later, a Tashkent court
sentenced him to a 15-day jail term. As prisoner of conscience Arifkhojayev
began his sentence his beard was shaved off, and he was tortured by being
given poor food, being kept in solitary confinement, and being denied a
shower and fresh clothing. Officers from Tashkent Police "Struggle with
Extremism and Terrorism Department" came to Arifkhojayev's cell "regularly
to insult and threaten him with physical torture when he asked to see his
On 14 July 2021 a court ordered prisoner of conscience Arifkhojayev held in
pre-trial detention, where he is still being held in November. Judge Sanjar
Makhametov claimed that Arifkhojayev photoshopped photos of Abduazimov and
other "respected Uzbek scholars" and "depicted them in police uniform".
Police stated that the photoshopping was done by another person, but that
Arifkhojayev's claimed sharing of it was "a threat to public security".
A human rights defender who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state
reprisals told Forum 18 that "the regime wants to shut people up and does
not want citizens to freely exchange their thoughts or ask questions about
Islam." They commented that "this will not lead anything good but will lead
to extremism," noting that "we need real reforms and freedoms, including
freedom of religion and belief, if we do not want extremism."
Preventative Register targeting devout Muslims
Ordinary Muslims and human rights defenders have told Forum 18 that the
regime adds Muslims who regularly attend mosques and who are thought to be
influential to the Preventative Register. This was created under the 2014
Law on Prevention of Violations of the Law (see above).
The Prevention Law automatically places people convicted by the courts on a
Preventive Register, subjecting them to a variety of police "preventative
measures" for one year or more. Many state-run organisations, from health
care to nature protection agencies, are able to initiate placing
individuals on the Preventive Register, including allowing many
possibilities for officials to arbitrarily arrange for people to stay on
the Register for many years. The Law also gives mahalla committees wide
powers to among other things with police "take measures to prevent the
activity of unregistered religious organisations". It also "legalises
unofficial informers" a legal expert from Tashkent noted to Forum 18.
Article 29 of the Prevention Law specifies "prevention measures" used
against individuals, including: prophylactic talks; official warnings;
"social rehabilitation"; placing on the Preventive Register; referral for
compulsory treatment; and administrative supervision.
Under Article 31 individuals are required to sign any written warning they
are given. If the individual refuses to sign, this is also noted. The
official issuing the warning can also inform the individual's employer (if
they are working), their educational establishment (if they are studying),
and the mahalla committee where they live.
Article 34 states that those on the Preventive Register are subjected to a
range of preventive measures from the police aimed at "correcting them and
warning against the conducting of repeat offences". Those subjected to the
Preventive Register include former prisoners, as well as those convicted of
a wide range of Administrative Code offences.
If an individual has been punished for more than one separate crime or
offence, they are listed on the Preventive Register separately for each
reason. "Muslims on watch lists, including those who were on these lists in
the past, are periodically summoned to police stations and mahalla
committees for talks and warnings," one human rights defender told Forum
One source used to identify Muslims for surveillance and warnings has been
state-run competitions to find Koran Hafizes, who have memorised the Koran.
The SSS secret police then questioned winners, a practice that Imam
Parpiyev strongly criticised. Other Imams have also told Forum 18 that some
of the competition winners were fined, but declined to give details for
fear of state reprisals.
One Muslim, who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals, told
Forum 18 in February 2019 that "the authorities monitor video cameras in
mosques, identify persons who are active and regularly attend mosques, and
put their names in those lists".
No more mosques for Shias
Shia Muslims have nationwide only four registered mosques of their own, two
in Bukhara Region and two in Samarkand. The capacity of these mosques is
inadequate to meet demand, and on religious festivals worshippers "overflow
into the street", a Muslim who remains anonymous for fear of state
reprisals told Forum 18.
In Bukhara Region, seven Shia mosques operated from the early 1990s until
2008, when officials closed all but two. "Shia Muslims say that without
enough Shia mosques, many Shias - particularly young people - are
forgetting Shia traditions and faith," a Muslim explained. Officials closed
the five Shia mosques using the excuse that the mosque buildings had no
Bukhara Muslims repeatedly state that many Shias would like the five closed
mosques to be reopened, to accommodate the demand for more capacity than
the currently open mosques can provide. Local mahallas (district
administrations) have allowed the mosque buildings to decay into a state of
poor repair. Some have been rented out for use as carpenter's workshops or
storage depots. In autumn 2020, Religious Affairs Committee and other
officials "clearly said that they will not give permission to exist to a
community if buildings where meetings for worship will be held are in poor
repair," a Muslim who remains anonymous for fear of state reprisals told
Shia Muslims in Bukhara District have themselves repaired the Khoji Bakhrom
Mosque building, which could accommodate up to 200 worshippers, and
collected the details of the 100 founders required by the Religion Law then
in force. However, in early 2021 officials "verbally told community members
that unless they repair a separate smaller damaged building that was used
by women visiting the mosque, they will not receive permission to use the
mosque". Shia Muslims are trying to decide whether to repair or demolish
the building, but do not have the funds for either.
In Samarkand local Muslims say that Shias face similar problems, but have
not approached the regime about opening mosques as "they are afraid of the
authorities and do not want to act independently of the imams of the open
mosques". The Muslims described imams as "acting together with the
authorities as they were appointed with their endorsement".
Each year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan sees stricter than usual
controls on Islamic communities. Officials continue to express hostility to
people – including children – attending mosques.
On 18 April 2021, the regime-controlled media broadcast a discussion
between Interior Minister Pulat Bobojonov and Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov
in which among other issues they discussed what they saw as a problem of
people attending mosques, in particular people under 18. "Two thousand
mosques were attended by 800,000 people, and unfortunately 22,000 children
attended Tarawih prayers [congregational prayers in Ramadan]," Interior
Minister Bobojonov told Prime Minister Aripov, who was seen to nod his head
in agreement. Bobojonov added that "we will gradually and significantly cut
down the number of children attending not by ordering them but by
explanatory work with their parents."
The interview was allegedly to discuss coronavirus measures, however a
human rights defender observed to Forum 18 that the interview did not
mention night clubs. Unlike mosques, the human rights defender has observed
night clubs freely functioning in Tashkent throughout 2021 without police
stopping people attending and without any social distancing.
Targeting children and young people
Teaching religion has long been banned without state permission, with
religion teachers requiring written permission from the headquarters of a
religious community that has state permission to exist. The Religion Law
bans religious education without state permission, and the regime uses a
wide range of tools to target this exercise of freedom of religion and
belief. These include raids by the ordinary police and SSS secret police on
those teaching the Koran and prayer in their home or in a mosque.
Criminal Code Article 229-2 punishes: "Teaching religious beliefs without
specialised religious education and without permission from the central
organ of a [registered] religious organisation, as well as teaching
religious beliefs privately". Punishments range from fines of 50 to 100
base units (5 to 10 months' average wage), community service, corrective
labour, restricted freedom or imprisonment for up to three years.
Administrative Code Article 241 already punishes "Teaching religious
beliefs without specialised religious education and without permission from
the central organ of a [registered] religious organisation, as well as
teaching religious beliefs privately". Punishments are fines of 5 to 10
base units (half to 1 month's average wage) or imprisonment for up to 15
Article 241 rather than Criminal Code Article 229-2 has been the preferred
law used by officials when targeting the teaching of religion – even
teaching adults, or teaching under-18-year-olds with the consent of parents
The regime has also often targeted children and young people attending
places of worship. Children and young people are not formally banned from
attending meetings for worship, but officials frequently pressure parents
and communities of all faiths not to allow them to attend.
In the southern Bukhara Region the ordinary police and SSS secret police
have openly watched people who go to mosques, especially during Friday
prayers, and stopped males under the age of 18 attending. Official imams
have complained that they cannot teach Islam to children. Non-state
controlled religious education is forbidden.
In May 2021 the ordinary police and SSS secret police raided the
Khoja-Ziadin Mosque in the north west of Samarkand Region, just as
worshippers were preparing to read the Koran and pray. Asliddin
Khudaiberdiyev was teaching at the mosque. "With the knowledge of the
parents, in the Mosque he teaches five boys aged between eight and 15 and
six adult men how to read the Koran and how to say the namaz prayer," a
local Muslim told Forum 18. An officer who was not wearing uniform took out
an Arabic alphabet book from the bag one of the boys had, and began asking
the boy why he is in the mosque and why he had the book. The boy was only
eight years old, a local Muslim said, "and he was frightened as the police
questioned him without his parents". All 11 men and boys were then taken to
a police station for questioning by the police "Struggle with Extremism and
Two days later, Khudaiberdiyev was summoned to the local mahalla committee,
where police officers were waiting to take him to begin a 15 day jail
sentence. Without his knowledge he had been tried in his absence and
sentenced under Administrative Code Article 241 ("Teaching religious
beliefs without specialised religious education and without permission from
the central organ of a [registered] religious organisation, as well as
teaching religious beliefs privately"), and Article 195 ("Resisting the
orders of police officers"). Judge Aziz Akramov refused to explain to Forum
18 why he jailed Khudaiberdiyev in his absence.
Human rights defenders who wish to remain anonymous for fear of state
reprisals have told Forum 18 that throughout Uzbekistan, including in
Tashkent, Bukhara, Karakalpakstan, and Samarkand, police have made school
headteachers call parents to tell them not to take their children and young
people to mosques. Imams of the state-controlled mosques have told fathers
to stop their children from attending mosques.
One human rights defender observed an apparent increase in such
restrictions from early 2021, and that under 18s and their families are
reluctant to discuss this for fear of state reprisals.
In April 2021 the Deputy Headteacher of a Bukhara school rang Muslim
parents to say that the ordinary police and the SSS secret police had
visited to ask "how religiously devout families and children are". Parents
were warned of unspecified consequences if they teach Islam to their
children, or any of their children wear the hijab.
People under 18 and their parents and guardians attending mosques during
Ramadan have long been particularly targeted. In May 2021, a police officer
in Bukhara pressured a Muslim not to take his school-age son into a mosque
to pray and celebrate the end of Ramadan, the man's brother told Forum 18.
"My brother went to a mosque with his 16-year old son, but the police
officer who was standing at the entrance stopped them and asked ‘is it
necessary for your son to go in?' As my brother didn't want any problems
with the state he asked his son to go home and pray there."
The Bukhara Muslim explained that there was plenty of free space for social
distancing, and that "coronavirus measures have nothing to do with the
restrictions on under-18s attending mosques". A human rights defender, who
asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18: "In
some cases, the ordinary police and SSS secret police have directly
questioned children and young people in mosques about why they are there."
Trapping and jailing Muslims who discuss Islam
Various Criminal Code articles have from March 2020 been used to jail
groups of Muslim men who met informally to pray and discuss their faith.
These include: Article 159 ("Attempts to change the constitutional order"),
Article 244-2 ("Creation, leadership or participation in religious
extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organisations"), and
Article 244-1 ("Production, storage, distribution or display of materials
containing a threat to public security and public order"). Common factors
in known cases have been unsubstantiated attempts to link the men with
violence and the use of police agent provocateurs.
In March 2021 a Tashkent court punished five men with sentences ranging
from six years in a labour camp to (in one case) a fine equivalent to about
one and a half months' average salary. In 2019 the men had started meeting
together to learn how to pray the namaz (Muslim daily prayers), and to
discuss Islamic topics such as prayer, fasting, peaceful jihad, good deeds
and other matters. They met for their discussions in cafes and teahouses,
and two or three times a week attended the state-controlled Umar ibn
Khattob Mosque in Tashkent's Olmazor District. A man who is thought by some
local Muslims to be a police informer was also present, and he filmed the
meetings, and created a Telegram channel for the group to continue to
discuss Islamic topics during the coronavirus lockdown.
Police, including "Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department"
officers, raided the homes of all five men in September 2020 and without
evidence accused them of having material allegedly "similar to thoughts of
terrorist movements". Film of the meetings that the suspected police agent
provocateur had taken, along with testimony by him, was used in court to
jail and fine the five men.
Corruption and restrictions on haj pilgrimage
Every able-bodied healthy adult Muslim who can afford to do so is obliged
to make a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. Yet the regime
seriously restricts the numbers of pilgrims, and imposes multiple obstacles
against potential pilgrims joining the long pilgrimage waiting lists. The
regime's methods include using exit ban lists to bar devout Muslims from
leaving, arbitrarily altering who can go on the pilgrimage and when they
can go, and imposing a high financial cost for going on the pilgrimage.
The Haj is controlled and organised by three separate and interlocking
state structures: the Haj Committee, the Haj Board, and the Haj Council,
all of which involve the SSS secret police, the Muftiate, and the Religious
The regime routinely imposes severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could
take part in the annual haj pilgrimage, including an "unwritten
instruction" banning would-be pilgrims under the age of 45. Between 2017
and 2019, Uzbekistan allowed only 7,200 haj pilgrims a year, roughly one
quarter of the number of pilgrims the regime would be allowed to send by
pilgrimage quota setter Saudi Arabia. (Pilgrims from Uzbekistan could not
take part in the haj in 2020 and 2021 because Saudi Arabia restricted
participation because of coronavirus.)
Haj pilgrims who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals have
observed that the complexity of the process and the many officials involved
provides many opportunities for bribery. For example, Haj pilgrims have
identified the "charitable works" requirement as one focus for extortion
and bribery. This requirement provides for officials to ask pilgrims to
perform "charitable works" at both the district authority and local mahalla
committee level. Such works include making donations for the repair or
upgrading of roads, laying electricity lines, allegedly helping poor
families, or donations for the unspecified welfare of the mahalla. These
donations are commonly made in cash, for example to mahalla committee
chairs, and there is no transparency or accountability for how such money
is spent or by whom.
Obtaining medical certificates is one of the regime's requirements for
potential Hajj pilgrims, and it is thought that at least some – possibly
20 per cent or more - of medical certificates are obtained through bribery.
These bribes can add between roughly 10 per cent and 30 per cent to the
cost of the haj. "Officials do not openly ask for bribes, but in reality,
bribery is what happens," one Muslim commented to Forum 18.
Another Muslim commented that "believers are afraid because of the
obstacles at so many levels that they will not be put on the waiting lists,
or be removed from the lists arbitrarily," one told Forum 18. "So, they are
willing to pay up to the officials." As another Muslim told Forum 18, "if
you bribe the authorities you will have no waiting problem. If you don't,
you may wait for years and years, because they will keep putting your name
at the bottom of the list all the time."
Muslims also stated that people do not wish to discuss such cases "fearing
for their safety", adding that "this is found in all spheres of life, that
officials create obstacles and big queues so people have to pay bribes to
get things done".
Registration restrictions on non-Muslim communities
The regime's primary interest in non-Muslim communities is (unlike Muslim
communities) not total internal control, but to keep them within closely
restricted geographic and activity related boundaries. No religious
community is allowed to exist without state permission. If communities
apply for permission to exist, the regime places multiple obstacles in the
way of gaining this.
The complex process of applying for state registration provides multiple
opportunities for officials to seek bribes. Members of religious
communities, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals,
have told Forum 18 that many communities would like to obtain state
registration, but are "being blocked from registering with various excuses.
Others have not applied, thinking that the authorities will not register
them." Although the regime registered some non-Muslim communities in late
2019, several sources told Forum 18 that officials demand bribes during the
process. Fearing reprisals, the sources declined to give examples of
communities which paid bribes to gain state registration.
Protestant, Jehovah's Witness, and Catholic religious communities have all
had recent applications to exist refused or had no replies to applications.
In many cases the excuse used has been refusals by local authorities to
provide documents as part of the complex, time-consuming and expensive
application process. "Nothing has changed," one Protestant church which has
applied for registration told Forum 18 in June 2021. It meets for worship
in a building, but is afraid that officials could stop this at any moment.
"Churches face a lot of bureaucratic obstacles to overcome when collecting
registration documents, as it can take several years before the authorities
provide the necessary certificates," another Protestant told Forum 18.
"Even when they apply, they still may not receive registration".
The experience of many communities, registered or unregistered, is that
repression can occur at any time, with no regard for whether or not a
community is registered.
State censorship of all religious literature is severe, and the import and
production of literature – including the Koran and the Bible - is
strictly controlled. This includes material on mobile phones, tablets,
personal computers, memory sticks and other electronic devices and media,
with compulsory prior censorship by the Religious Affairs Committee.
Protestants told Forum 18 in July 2021 that "we currently publish religious
materials online without interference. But we think that the regime may now
punish us for this anytime they choose to do this".
Criminal Code Article 246, Part 1 punishes "Smuggling, that is carriage
through the customs border .. without the knowledge of or with concealment
from customs control .. materials that propagandise religious extremism,
separatism, and fundamentalism". This is punishable by imprisonment for
between 10 and 20 years.
Along with other Criminal Code articles, from around 2013 it has been used
by the regime to jail or fine Muslims (including foreign citizens) found
with the Koran and Muslim sermons on their mobile phones. Officials often
search mobile phones and other electronic devices in the hunt for religious
In July 2021, a Tashkent court handed 47-year-old Odilbek Khojabekov a five
year labour camp sentence in absentia to punish him for returning from haj
pilgrimage with Islamic literature. A Religious Affairs Committee "expert
analysis" of Islamic texts and his mobile phone claimed that the books "can
lead to confusion and misunderstanding among the population, and therefore
their import to Uzbekistan is banned". No reason is given for these claims,
and officials refused to answer questions. A first trial in 2019 gave
Khojabekov a suspended sentence which was later removed for good probation
A criminal case was in 2020 opened against Khojabekov for the same "crime",
as he was claimed to have erased a short Muslim text from his mobile phone
before he went on the haj. He read and erased the text a long time
beforehand, but the SSS secret police restored the text of the book from
the mobile phone's cache files in autumn 2019. The text criticises what it
sees as unnamed atheists and unnamed governments who the text says view
Islam as "a religion that impedes progress", and "a danger to security". It
also criticises unnamed governments which do not allow Muslims to exercise
freedom of religion and belief, and is especially critical of bans on
wearing the hijab. The SSS secret police then pressured ordinary police,
prosecutors, and others into giving what the family insists is false
testimony at a second hearing which ordered him jailed. He is in hiding
fearing for his safety.
Only registered communities can seek permission to print or import
material, which is often refused. Relatively little literature about the
majority Islamic faith is allowed to be published, and none is imported
officially. Some previously published Islamic books are now regarded as
banned, such as the ninth century Islamic scholar Imam Muhammad ibn Ismail
al-Bukhari's book "Sahih al-Bukhari". This is a collection of hadiths which
Sunni Muslims regard as the most authentic compilation.
On 25 December 2019 the Religious Affairs Committee harshened the existing
severe state censorship system for all religious texts by approving an
updated list of "extremist" texts. Around 200 texts from a wide range of
Muslim backgrounds were included, including all texts by the late Turkish
theologian Said Nursi (readers of whom have in the past been jailed), all
texts by adherents of the Tabligh Jamaat Muslim missionary group, and all
texts by Ahmadi Muslims. A wide range of other Islamic authors are also
Apparently to allow officials the maximum flexibility in imposing arbitrary
bans the document states: "Religious texts which were not included in this
list are not authorised, but are subject to further expert analysis. The
list of banned books will be regularly updated. Texts in the list and their
translations into other [non-Uzbek] languages as well as their electronic
copies are also banned." Among the imprecise reasons given for the
wide-ranging bans are "violation of the constitutional order and of
security", "incitement of religious enmity and insulting religious
feelings", "teaching of religious separatism and sectarianism", "attracting
under-18-year-olds into religious organisations", and "texts by banned
Muslim religious movements".
The regime particularly targets Shia Muslim texts. In December 2020,
Samarkand Police "Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department" opened
a case against Shia Muslim Rashid Ibrahimov. The case was opened the same
day that Traffic Police stopped Ibrahimov as he was taking his children to
a doctor's appointment. Officers questioned him twice at a police station,
without a written summons, and copied all the material on his mobile phone.
In March 2021 he was fined about two weeks' average wages for having Shia
texts on his phone, and the phone was ordered to be confiscated.
One Muslim, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals,
commented to Forum 18 that the SSS secret police "puts Muslims in a
dangerous place. They want to read about their faith, but the authorities
ban religious texts. Muslims will be punished as in the past for reading or
carrying religious texts on their electronic devices."
On 21 June 2021 courts fined journalists and editors from Azon.uz and
Kun.uz for publishing articles on religious themes without Religious
Affairs Committee permission. One of the articles the Committee objected to
was about the New Zealand Police adopting the hijab as part of police
uniform, which Kun.uz sourced from a BBC report. The Religious Affairs
Committee "ruled that the contents of the materials were not illegal".
However, the article "should not have been published". Every article which
the Religious Affairs Committee might be interested in must be sent to them
for pre-publication "expert analysis". A human rights defender observed to
Forum 18 that articles the Religious Affairs Committee might object to were
no longer being published.
The regime is also targeting ordinary members of religious communities who
express their views. Officials warned Shia Muslims in Bukhara and Samarkand
in June 2021 "not to publish religious materials on their social media".
One human rights defender stated that "after the warning many deleted their
accounts, or deleted religious materials." A human rights defender noted
that "some even stopped talking to or associating with people who had been
The November 2020 trial of prisoner of conscience Astanov (see above) used
a report by the Agency of Information and Mass Communications under the
Presidential Administration (AIMC), which President Mirziyoyev established
in February 2019, to "monitor the national information space" among other
tasks. The AIMC report, signed by its Deputy Director Gairat Bozorov,
claims that Astanov follows "sources of biased news such as Radio Free
Europe", that he criticised the actions of the SSS secret police, the
ordinary police, prosecutors, the judiciary and prison guards, and claims
that Astanov published "unsubstantiated and exaggerated" information on the
activity of the regime's agencies. The AIMC refused to discuss its claims
with Forum 18.
Human rights defenders in regions across Uzbekistan have told Forum 18 in
2021 that there is blocking of some websites, including Forum 18's and
those of religious communities the regime dislikes such as Jehovah's
Witnesses. Attempts to access blocked sites produce a notice in Uzbek,
Russian and English stating that "access to the information resource was
restricted according to Cabinet of Ministers decree No. 707 from 5
September 2018 on Measures of improvement of information security in
World-Wide Web – Internet." Jehovah's Witnesses say the regime allowed
access to their website in May 2020.
Thousands of Muslims have been imprisoned on accusations of belonging to
terrorist, "extremist" or banned organisations, or related to exercising
freedom of religion and belief. The nature of the Uzbek "justice system",
in which the planting of evidence and torture is normal, makes it unlikely
that the regime knows how many of its prisoners are only guilty of
exercising their freedom of religion and belief. In October 2021, the
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom estimated that
there were over 2,000 such jailed Muslims
Prison conditions are harsh, with unsanitary and dangerous living and
working conditions, beatings by guards, and criminal gangs having a
ruthless hold over other prisoners. Freedom of religion and belief is
denied to all prisoners. Prison and labour camp conditions are harsh, and
even religious communities the regime allows to exist – such as the
state-controlled Muftiate and the Russian Orthodox Church – appear to
have only limited access to prisoners.
Human rights violations within prisons include torture, denials of medical
care, and denials of the possibility to read sacred texts and pray openly.
In one of a number of recent cases, in November 2020 prison guards tortured
a Muslim man for praying the namaz (Islamic daily prayers). "The prison
officers beat him up really badly, leaving bruises on his body and face,"
family members who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals
told Forum 18. "Why did the authorities punish him simply for praying the
namaz? What day and age do we live in?"
Prisoner of conscience Tulkun Astanov, jailed in 2021 for defending
Muslims' freedom of religion and belief, has been put under special
surveillance. Prison authorities removed copies of the Koran, Constitution,
and Criminal Code from the prison library when they realised he wanted to
read them. He has been tortured by being "beaten on his body on 30 June
2021 for praying the namaz in prison". His wife told Forum 18 that "he has
lost 25 kg of weight since he was jailed". Prison authorities also send
prisoners – such as Astanov - to prisons far from their homes as an
apparent part of their punishment.
A human rights defender told Forum 18 of "a scandalous visit by a foreign
delegation" to Astanov's prison. Prison officials claimed that "religious
extremism" meant "saying Allahu-Akbar aloud". This phrase is used by
Muslims as they say the namaz prayers five times a day. The official then
told the delegation that prisoners are not allowed to read the Koran or
pray the namaz as, the official claimed without evidence, "those prisoners
either tend to create chaos in prison or commit suicide". The human rights
defender stated that "the delegation did not correct the officials," and
prisoners "gained the impression that important visitors support policies
against devout Muslims".
Against Uzbekistan's binding international human rights obligations under
the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment, no official suspected of involvement in torture of
people who exercised their freedom of religion or belief is known to have
been arrested and put on criminal trial for torture.
Despite this, Aziza Kenzhayeva of the International Section of the Interior
Ministry's Chief Directorate for the Enforcement of Punishments claimed to
Forum 18 in February 2021 that "there are no problems in Uzbekistan's
State control and impunity
The regime systematically violates intertwined fundamental rights in its
quest to control the society it rules. Without fundamental change -
especially genuine independently verifiable implementation of international
human rights obligations – it is likely that fundamental human rights
will continue to be violated by the regime's officials with impunity. (END)
Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Uzbekistan
Previous Forum 18 Uzbekistan religious freedom surveys
Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
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