Tashkent, 12 October 2017
From 2 to 12 October 2017, I have conducted a country visit to Republic of Uzbekistan in my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. First of all, I am grateful that the Government has invited me to visit the country especially since I am the first Special Rapporteur who had been invited since 2002. I also want to acknowledge the full cooperation extended to me by the Government in accommodating all my requests for meetings and granted me unimpeded access to institutions, including the Jaslyk Prison. Many thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Human Rights Centre, especially Professor Saidov, for their coordination efforts. I thank the UNDP Office in Tashkent for its kind support in all logistical matters, without which, the visit could not have taken place smoothly. Besides, I also want to thank Regional Office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bishkek for additional mission support. Cordial thanks in particular to the interlocutors from Government agencies, civil society organizations and religious communities who have shared their experiences, assessment and vision. I have had many open discussions in Tashkent, Fergana, Bukhara, Nukus and Jaslyk Prison from which I have learned a lot.
Today, I present my preliminary findings, including some main observations to which I wish to draw your attention. The official final report will be presented to the 37th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2018. In preparation of the report, I will continue to engage and work in consultation with the Government and all relevant stakeholders to receive more information and clarification of these preliminary observations and impressions.
In my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, I do not merely deal with issues of religious persecution or coercion. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief (here after, freedom of religion or belief (FORB) also covers restrictions within the legal framework or societal structures that may affect everyone’s free manifestation of religious beliefs and faith-related practices. Moreover, less visible subtle discriminatory structures in policies are also included. The purpose of freedom of religion or belief is to create an inclusive society that gives space for everyone to express or not to express, manifest and practice one’s faith in private or in public freely. Notably, there are challenges to be faced in all societies and it is a long term project.
The Government has shown goodwill in making changes and step up to its international obligations and commitment. In order to implement agreements reached during the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Uzbekistan in May 2017, the Council of Legislative Chamber of Oliy Majlis and the Council of the Senate of Oliy Majlis have jointly decided to approve an action plan on further development of cooperation with OHCHR, among which, the invitation to my mandate for a country visit is already an undertaken action and a much welcomed one. Furthermore, the action plan includes expanding women’s participation in public administration and protection of their rights. Generally, gender equality is promoted and guaranteed under the Constitution and other laws in Uzbekistan.
Besides, under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan is going through some reforms according to the 2017-2021 Action Strategy on five priorities of development of the Republic of Uzbekistan. Among others, Area V of the Action Strategy covers religious tolerance and inter-ethnic harmony. According to the President, the priority is implementation of a simple and clear principle – «The human interests come first».
In June 2017, the President ordered the review of individual cases of detention of persons in custody and at least 16,000 were removed from “watchlist”. The Government has embarked on a programme of reintegration into the community of those citizens who were stigmatized or ostracized through alleged religious extremism. Prisons seem to have adopted similar rehabilitative approach towards their inmates.
There is a draft “Law on Public Control” that would allow the Parliament and the citizens to supervise the activities of all law enforcement agencies in terms of protection of human rights and freedoms.
The recent establishment of People’s Reception Centres under the President’s office all over the country serves the purpose of making the Government more accountable and accessible to the people. Citizens now can raise their concerns to the President via the centres and should usually get a response within short time period. Till date, about 1,200,000 complaints have been received and around 80% of the cases have been resolved according to the Government.
The President recognized that there is a need to promote universal access to education, eliminate illiteracy, and increase higher learning; hence he also announced the establishment of Imam Al-Bukhari International Scientific Research Centre in Samarkand and Centre of Islamic Civilization in Tashkent.
I observed that there have been a lot of efforts put together to implement the reforms proposed and some positive changes have been witnessed by the citizens. The reforms are ambitious and will require systematic, transparent and accountable implementation and monitoring. Moreover, there should be a careful plan for sustainability of the changes. The challenges that lie ahead in implementing the programme must neither be underestimated nor allowed to overwhelm the enterprise.
Constitutional and legal framework on freedom of religion in Uzbekistan
Freedom of religion or belief (including freedom from religion) is guaranteed by Article 31 of the Constitution but is subject to the limitation provided for in Article 20 that the exercise by a citizen of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution shall not encroach on the lawful interests, rights and freedoms of other citizens, the state or society. The Constitution establishes, by Article 61, a secular framework guaranteeing non-interference by the State in the affairs of religious communities separating the State and religion from each other, including by prohibiting the formation of political parties on religious principles by Article 57.
Details of the scope and limitations for the exercise of freedom of religion or belief are provided in the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (“Law on Religion”). The Law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.
Moreover, the 2014 Law on Prevention of Violations of the Law (“The Prevention Law”) gives wide-ranging powers to state bodies, including committees that are organized at the neighbourhood level (Mahalla Committees), and created a Preventive Register. The Preventive Register had numbered over 17,000 persons at its peak although the number has now been reduced, as part of the reform measures initiated by the President, to just over 1,000, as noted above.
Sanctions for the violations for the Law on Religion are specified in the Administrative Code and the Criminal Code. The Administrative Code articles most frequently cited in the context of freedom of religion or belief are: Article 184-2 which punishes illegal production, storage, or import into Uzbekistan, with the intent to distribute or actual distribution, of religious materials by physical persons; Article 201, Part 2 which criminalizes the violation of the procedure for holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies; Article 202 that 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; article 240 Part 1 that punishes carrying out of unauthorized religious activity, evasion by leaders of religious organizations of registration of the charter of the organization, and the organization and conduct of special children’s and youth meetings, as well as vocational, literature and other study groups not relating to worship. The penalty for the last mentioned ranges from fines of 50 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage to up to 15 days imprisonment, while the other breaches mentioned above carry fines only.
The Criminal Code distinguishes between “illegal” (unregistered) groups and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.” Article 244-2 of the Criminal Code criminalizes membership in organizations that are banned as terrorist groups, and of which there are 22. The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups. It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison to organize or participate in an unregistered religious group. Article 216-1 of the Criminal Code also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups with penalties of up to three years in prison.
Criminal Code Article 216-1 punishes proselytism––the conversion of persons belonging to a certain religion to another religion––with up to three years in prison, proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission, and prohibits all individuals except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations from wearing religious attire in public places. Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal under Criminal Code Article 216-2.
The provisions outlined above have very serious implications for the rights protected under international human rights law in regard to freedom of religion or belief, especially in the manifestation of one’s belief, in private or public, whether alone or in community with others, in worship, observance, practice and teaching. A number of the limitations applied to the practice of one’s faith also negatively impact on the right to educate one’s children in the religious values of parents as well as on the evolving capacity of the child. Despite the constitutional commitment to secularism, the state, in many ways, interferes in the free exercise of conscience, either in the name of state interests or as the guardian of collective interests.
Although the freedom of religion or belief under international law is a qualified right and provides for limitations on grounds of public safety, public order, health, morals and the fundamental rights of others, and supports only non-coercive practices, the regime of limitations imposed by the legal framework and policies and practices of the authorities, exceeds the limits prescribed by international law. Thus the notion that freedom of religion or belief is a human right inherent to every human being is not recognized in law and practice.
The regime of excessive limitations that is imposed by law was defended by interlocutors representing the government and other state agencies, leaders of the recognized faith communities and several members of civil society.
These interlocutors generally appear convinced that these policies are warranted on several accounts. Arguments advanced include the experience of religious extremism in the country’s recent past and that of countries around them, including terrorism, the exposure of migrant workers to radical teachings of Islam in their host communities, and the relative peace and stability the country has secured through the pursuit of these policies.
Some of these arguments about the success of these policies are belied by the human rights cost of these policies—resulting in the detention of several thousand people for terrorism related charges and for other charges, but believed to be connected to their religious belief and practice. While the Criminal Code prescribes 15 years from intentional homicide, membership in a prohibited organization, regardless of active involvement in any violent activity, may incur a prison sentence of over 20 years. It was not possible to obtain, during the course of the visit, the exact number of those serving sentences for violations of laws related to the exercise of religious freedom. However, the fact that over 17,000 had been put on a preventive watch-list suggests that the figure is likely to be high.
A fundamental challenge for religious freedom in the country is the extent to which the human right to freedom of religion is subordinated to the communal interest or the collective interest. The latter is given such prominence that even the remotest challenge to what is perceived as the collective interest is restricted, prohibited or penalized. The main ways in which these restrictions are applied are prescribed in law, but fail to meet the requirement under Article 18 of the ICCPR that they also be proportionate and serve a legitimate aim in a democratic society and that they do not vitiate the core elements of the right. The human right to freedom of religion moreover requires that the exercise of that right not be subject to prior recognition by the State. These standards are not met in several ways, particularly in the following areas:
Types of Limitations on Freedom of Religion or Belief
As noted above, Uzbekistan’s Religion Law of 1998 requires that all religious groups register with the Ministry of Justice. The1998 Law states that a religious organization has the status of a juridical person and can carry out its activities only after registration by the Ministry of Justice. It further provides that religious educational establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the Ministry of Justice and receiving the appropriate license. It also stipulates that persons teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education and carry out their work with the permission of the appropriate agency of the central administration. These provisions make it illegal to practice any form of religion or belief in community with others without first obtaining registration as a juridical entity. However, many religious groups cannot meet registration requirements, such as a permanent representation in eight of the country’s thirteen provinces for central registration or the application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality. The applicants also require the concurrence of the Committee for Religious Affairs and the Mahalla Committee. Thus, several minority religious groups struggle to register, and their communal activities are therefore subject to criminal sanction—except in some cases where registration was provided even if the membership total of 100 was not reached but received the concurrence of the Committee for Religious Affairs.
Under international law, the right to manifest one’s faith in public or in private and alone or in community with others does not proceed from recognition by the state, but is an inherent and inalienable right, and is not contingent upon recognition by the state. By contrast, in Uzbekistan, registration is the point where the right to practice a religion or belief begins—except in one’s own home. In fact, the process of registration and associated procedures may amount to an attempt to manage the internal affairs of a religious group, by restricting its practice to certified premises, and allowing inspection of the practice of that faith.
Uzbekistan’s law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute materials. The Council of Religious Affairs must conduct reviews of all materials produced and approve them before distribution. Materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items, CDs, DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world. The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications. Persons who distribute leaflets or literature via social networks have been subject to criminal prosecution and have faced jail terms ranging from 5 to 20 years, for spreading extremist ideology. Until recently, such literature, except an approved copy of the Quran, could only be kept at registered places of worship. Now Christians are allowed to keep an approved copy of the Bible in their home.
Proselytism and missionary activity
The law in Uzbekistan prohibits proselytism and conversion and an individual found in violation of the law may face a prison term of up to three years under section 216-1 of the Criminal Code. The State forbids efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission. The authorities clearly stated that the law does not forbid voluntary conversion of any individual, however, it intends to avoid tensions between the communities or competition. Besides, it protects any claims of religious supremacy or “unethical conversion” through material enticement which may lead to other societal conflicts.
Officials and other interlocutors acknowledged the existence of social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion, while other religious groups say they feel less societal pressure in the event of conversion. While there are reports that ethnic Uzbeks who have converted to Christianity face harassment and discrimination, particularly from neighborhood officials, their family members and employers, there were several other reports that conversion that was perceived as voluntary was met with acceptance. Some reported that social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials of their dead; and forced such groups to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to allow burials only with rituals of another faith. Others however reported collaboration and accommodation amongst different faith communities in performing the burial rites of those who had converted.
Religious groups that are known to proselytize normally face greater social scrutiny and their neighbors call the police to report their activities. Other religious community generally report friendly relations with predominant Muslim faith members and leadership.
There appeared to be some confusion as to what was precisely banned under the anti-conversion laws. Many reported that voluntary conversion was permitted under the law and was socially accepted. It also appeared that the sensitivity to efforts to convert people to one’s faith may vary from region to region, depending on the specific context of the region, and that what was prohibited was unethical conversion. The Committee for Religious Affairs suggested that all efforts to preach religion to others outside one’s home or in the registered religious premises were prohibited.
Only religious groups with a registered central administrative body are allowed to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction. Nine specialized Islamic training schools, called madrasas, including one for women, and an Orthodox and a
Protestant seminary officially can train religious personnel and provide secondary education. The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrasa-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrasa graduates to continue to university-level education. In addition, the Tashkent Islamic Institute and the Tashkent Islamic University provide higher education religion programs. Aside from these options, no other officially sanctioned religious instruction for individuals interested in learning about Islam exists. According to information conveyed by the officials, clerics from various religions, including the Shia community, who obtained their qualifications abroad, were allowed to function within licensed premises.
The State discourages children under age sixteen from practicing religion or visiting places of worship in Uzbekistan as they think children must complete their compulsory education and make an informed choice later if they wish to practise religion. The view that was expressed to me was that religion was an adult activity. Children however are free to choose to attend religious school after completion of their compulsory education if they wish to do so.
I received mixed information on the ability of Muslims to go to Hajj. Officials noted that the number of pilgrims who could travel to Mecca on Hajj was set by the Saudi authorities through their quota system. Most people who travel to Mecca are over 40 years old. Those who were planning to travel to Hajj, explained that it was customary only for men and women of advanced age to contemplate going to Hajj, and noted that there was no waiting list to go to Hajj. While this may be a regional variation, national authorities stated that the waiting list was not longer than 3 years. The number of those who could go to Hajj increased to 7,500 from 5,000 in 2017 and is expected to increase in 2018.
Restrictions in Prison
I was able to visit Jaslyk Prison which, according to the prison administration, houses about 700 inmates, and I was able to talk to a number of inmates, including some in private. The warden explained to me that inmates were free to practice their faith so long as that did not violate the prison’s internal rules, regulations and strict schedules. On what I was able to see, a considerable effort appeared to be paid to the rehabilitation of prisoners, especially those that were convicted on alleged religious extremism. Some of them were also offered opportunities for early release or amnesty by having proven their remorse and good behaviour in prison. However, I have received reports that many have had their terms in prison extended by additional periods of 1 to 3 years, sometimes successively for alleged violation of internal rules of the prison (Article 221 of the Criminal Code). In some cases, the cumulative extended terms could be lengthier than the original terms.
The prison authorities cited the secular commitment of the constitution as grounds for not making special dispensation to allow the practice of faith. I learned that during Ramadan, prisoners who wished to observe the fast were free to retain some items of food from their regular meals, or what their families may have brought for them but the prison will not serve them additional meals at dawn before they start their fast each day. Routinely, Muslim prisoners are able to pray within the limit of the internal rules and Imams or religious representatives are invited to prison to give talks.
One of the primary ways in which the freedom of religion or belief is violated is through an overly broad interpretation of religious extremism. According to information shared with me by the Prosecutor’s Office, extremism is understood as the activity of individuals or groups or associations for planning, organizing, preparing or committing actions aimed at: forcible change of the foundations of the constitutional system, violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic of Uzbekistan (Article 159 of the Criminal Code); incitement of racial, national or religious hatred, as well as social discord connected with violence or calls for violence; propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of a person (social group) on the basis of his social, racial, ethnic, ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude towards religion (Article 156 of the Criminal Code); violation of human rights, freedoms and legitimate interests, depending on their social, racial, national, ethnic, religious or linguistic affiliation or attitude to religion (Article 145 of the Criminal Code); commission of crimes based on political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity or on grounds of hatred or enmity towards any social group, as well as from revenge for lawful actions of other persons, with the purpose of concealing another crime or facilitating its commission (in parts of separate articles of the Criminal Code); manufacturing, storage and distribution of extremist materials (Article 244-1 of the Criminal Code); undermining the security of the state (Article 159 of the Criminal Code); seizure or appropriation of power (Article 159 of the Criminal Code); carrying out mass riots, hooliganism and acts of vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, ethnic or religious hatred or enmity, as well as on motives of hatred or enmity towards any social group (Article 244 of the Criminal Code); creation, leadership and participation in an extremist organization (Article 244-2 of the Criminal Code); public calls for the implementation of all the above acts (Article 159 of the Criminal Code).
Some of the provisions above appear to capture a wide range of activities, or open to interpretation in ways to cover activities that are protected under international law. I have been told that in order to improve the legal framework for combating extremism, at present, the Prosecutor General's Office, together with other ministries and agencies, is drafting a “Law on Countering Extremism”, which will define such concepts as “extremism”, “extremist activity”, “extremist organization” and others. I hope there will be an opportunity for the public and international stakeholders to comment on the draft law so that it may benefit from international good practices in an area that has clearly challenged the country.
About 3 million Uzbeks are working abroad, mostly in Russia and Turkey, and many interlocutors, both official and civil society, expressed concern that poor religious literacy and expatriate status, exposed these workers, most young men, to radical Islamic preaching. The authorities explained that a programme was underway to address these concerns by sending officials abroad as a preventive measure, to provide information on Islamic teachings, and to prevent their radicalization through uninformed exposure to radical ideas and groups. Others expressed concern that this was a way of monitoring the activities of Uzbeks abroad which resulted in their being put under surveillance, along with their families, back home. Similar to the Mahalla committees in the country, which play an important role in giving pastoral care, the use of overly broad definitions of extremism and lack of respect for privacy, would be a matter of concern.
While the Constitution of Uzbekistan guarantees freedom of religion or belief in the country, in practice, the manifestation of freedom of religion or belief is subject to excessive regulations that prioritize security over freedom. The approach taken by the Government tends to promote toleration instead of freedom. The understanding of freedom of religion or belief is limited and there is a need to increase the literacy both on religions and religious freedom at all levels.
There are signs however, that the government is committed to its reform programme and that could potentially address a range of issues that have been identified above. The challenges ahead however are daunting, not the least of which is the management of the reform process to ensure that the progress is transparent, meaningful, accountable and sustained. What is required is not just the adoption of new laws, but also meaningful institutional reform, and credible change on the ground, which needs the government supporting and encouraging societal change. It will also require the support of the international community in assisting both the government and civil society to sustain the momentum.