Hard Labour for Uzbekistan's Religious Dissidents

People arrested for “religious crimes” in Uzbekistan are commonly forced to carry out manual work as part of their punishment.

Human rights groups say they have seen an increase in “corrective labour” orders – allowed as part of certain sentences – against people who are typically charged with possessing Muslim or Christian literature, one of the more minor offences on the scale. Previously they were almost always fined or simply locked up for two weeks or a month.

“They might get a court order placing them under administrative arrest for 15 days, sometimes a month. In such cases, it’s forced labour on a building project or street cleaning,” Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, told IWPR.

There are two main types of offender. First, Muslims accused of preaching or possessing illegal religious literature. Although Uzbekistan is predominantly Muslim, the government is fearful of radical Islam as a source of opposition. Suspected radicals are frequently charged with attempting to overthrow the state, which carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. For minor offences, “administrative arrest” lasting 15 or 30 days is commonly applied.

According to Ikramov, suspected Islamists are often given short sentences and made to work.

In May, six men were charged with “Wahhabi” activities – in Uzbekistan, a catch-all term for any kind of Sunni fundamentalism. Two were jailed for five years for the more serious of recruiting new members, and other the four were detained for 30 days and made to work in a brick factory.

Every autumn, such detainees are sent to join students, teachers and other public-service workers conscripted to pick cotton.

“The authorities have decided to use unpaid labour to solve the shortage of workers in the cotton fields, on building sites and in other areas requiring unskilled labour,” Ikramov told IWPR. “There are a lot of cases brought against religious people, so there are enough of them to take part.”

Those convicted for long terms on “Islamic” charges are also made to work Ikramov estimates that 12,000 of the 110,000 prison inmates in Uzbekistan are there for religion-related convictions.

“They have the toughest time. Many are forced to work, they get paid less, and they are subjected to torture and other forms of mistreatment,” he said.

The second category consists of members of small Christian groups like the Baptists. The authorities regularly crack down on prayer meetings and charge people with proselytising. These groups of foreign origin are described as “non-traditional” and are treated differently from the Russian Orthodox Church, which unlike them does not seek converts outside its core constituency of Russians and other Slavs.

Sharofat Alamova, 44, from the Khorezm region of northwest Uzbekistan, was given a 1.5 year sentence in May after being convicted of possessing and distributing illegal Christian literature. A practicing Protestant, she was found to have handed out CDs containing Bible stories to children last New Year.

Alamova could have paid a fine instead, which for this offence would have been the equivalent of 3,800 US dollars but lacked the money for this. An appeal against the sentence was turned down. Unlike those detained for short periods, she is on conditional release, subject to restrictions on her movements and a requirement to work up to ten hours a day on tasks that have ranged from street-cleaning and rubbish collection to tidying up a Muslim cemetery.

“It’s very tough work, but I’m forced to do it,” she said, adding that she had to carry out other jobs when she finished for the day just to earn some money.

A Protestant pastor in Uzbekistan told IWPR that congregations like his were vulnerable to arbitrary arrest, especially if they did not register as a “religious organisation” with the authorities. He had been trying to do so for the last seven years, with no success.

“The police aren’t afraid to assault Christians now. When people are beaten up, they don’t complain to the prosecution service as they fear for their own lives and those of their families,” the pastor said. “We’ll be forced to hide in catacombs as the early Christians did.”