An Uzbek court has handed a Jehovah’s Witness a three-year suspended sentence for “inciting religious hatred.” Freedom of conscience advocates are concerned that the conviction heralds an expansion of the Uzbek government’s crackdown on religious expression.
Eurasianet – 2 December 2002 – Marat Mudarisov, 26, was convicted on November 29 of violating article 156.1 of Uzbekistan’s criminal code for supposedly distributing printed matter that the state deemed insulting to the national feelings and religious convictions of Uzbekistani citizens. Mudarisov’s supporters countered that the state’s case was politically motivated, and aimed to establish a precedent that would help authorities limit the activities of Christian proselytizers in Uzbekistan.
“We expect more prosecution to come for the distribution of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature. The court in this case decided that everything said by the prosecution was true and ignored the evidence of the defense,” said John Burns, a Canadian Attorney and member of the St. Petersburg International Board of Lawyers who is advising Mudarisov’s lawyers.
Burns added that in the aftermath of Mudarisov’s conviction, he expected two similar cases to proceed. Those two cases, in the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Navoii, involve criminal charges brought against Jehovah’s Witnesses for “proselytizing” and “missionary activity,” in violation of article 216.2 of the criminal code. Currently there are over 3,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Uzbekistan, and it is among the fastest growing of the many Christian groups now active in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country, has for years sought to suppress all forms of Islamic religious expression not expressly sanctioned by government officials. Human rights advocates estimate that up 7,000 people have been imprisoned on charges of fomenting radical Islamic beliefs and seeking to overthrow the current Uzbek government. Many of those in custody have been accused of belonging to banned radical groups, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
According to Human Rights Watch’s Matilda Bogner, the Mudarisov case is perhaps the first in Uzbekistan in which a Christian has been prosecuted on the basis of religious beliefs. “Clearly a man has been prosecuted for his religious beliefs and that has been a part of the actual criminal case against him,” Bogner said.
An expert study presented by state prosecutors provided a clue as to why the government appears to be targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to court files the study said the religious beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses may serve to undermine national security by encouraging “citizens against participation in politics and against serving in State offices.” The study also accuses Jehovah’s Witnesses of not respecting “state symbols – hymn, flag, arms, because it is [considered] idolatry – [and] agitating youth to deviate from military service.”
Since the outbreak of a radical Islamic insurgency in 1999, President Islam Karimov’s administration has sought to maintain a tight grip over Uzbekistan’s political, economic and social life. That trend has solidified over the past year, which has seen a dramatic expansion of US-Uzbek military cooperation.
Bogner suggested that Uzbek officials view the rapid growth of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a potential threat to the authoritarian system now in place. “I think the government is also concerned about Christian groups getting, though what would never be a huge following, a large following,” Bogner said. “If they became organized and if they became some sort of a force, even though that would be a religious force, that’s something that government could see as a threat to its own power.” Cultural suspicion may also have been a factor in Mudarisov’s prosecution, Bogner added. Many Uzbek Muslims are wary of Christian proselytizers in what is traditionally an Islamic country.
Mudarisov was first detained and questioned by state security agents in July. He was held at Tashkent’s city prison throughout the investigative process. During his trial, which began October 16, authorities said they found in Mudarisov’s possession Uzbek-language pamphlets that touted the superiority of the teachings of the Bible over those of the Koran. The official expert study characterized the pamphlet as “anti-constitutional propaganda of pseudo-religious ideas … and inciting hatred among representatives of other religions.”
Defense lawyers argued that the pamphlet was planted on Mudarisov, citing the fact that he is an ethnic Tatar who does not speak Uzbek. Mudarisov’s defenders added that the trial at the Akmal Ikramovsky district court in Tashkent featured numerous procedural violations. They asserted that his detention from July until November 22, when he was unexpectedly released during the last phase of the trial, constituted a violation of Mudarisov’s rights.
This article was originally published by Eurasianet.
Posted on Religioscope with permission.
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