The Prosecutor asked Tashkent City Court to give 48-year-old Tulkun Astanov a five-year suspended sentence, and 44-year-old Rustambek Karimov a three-and-a-half-year jail term, with a verdict expected on or after 18 October. The two Muslim bloggers are being punished for visiting the state-controlled Muslim Board to discuss hijab bans and other restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.
As the criminal trial of two Muslim bloggers at Tashkent City Court neared its end after seven weeks, on 9 October the State Prosecutor asked the Court to give 48-year-old Tulkun Astanov a five-year suspended sentence, and 44-year-old Rustambek Karimov a three-and-a-half-year jail term. The two men gave their final addresses to the court on 14 October. The verdict might be handed down as early as 18 October.
The two bloggers – who first met in March at a court hearing in the capital Tashkent over women's right to wear the hijab scarf - are being tried to punish them for visiting the state-controlled Muslim Board to discuss their concerns over this and other restrictions on the rights to freedom of religion or belief in Uzbekistan (see below).
"Today the Court gave the final word to the defenders, with about one hour in total for both of them," Rukhiddin Komilov, a Tashkent human rights defender, told Forum 18 on 14 October. He is defending the two bloggers together with Toir Zhumashev, the defence lawyer. "The Court took no other actions, and possibly on 18 October or on a later date the sentences will be handed down."
Astanov is facing the more serious charges of storing or distributing "extremist" materials using telecommunications networks. The maximum punishment is eight years' imprisonment. Karimov is facing charges of storing or distributing "extremist" materials, with a maximum punishment of three years' imprisonment. Both men deny distributing any "extremist" materials (see below).
Officials at the Court refused to put Forum 18 through to the Judge hearing the case, Orif Klychev. Neither they, nor officials at Tashkent City Prosecutor's Office, would explain why Astanov and Karimov are on trial (see below).
Ulugbek Jurayev, Assistant to Abdugafur Akhmedov, the newly-appointed Chair of the State Religious Affairs Committee, claimed to Forum 18 on 14 October that Akhmedov and his Deputies were busy.
Asked why the authorities are prosecuting Astanov and Karimov simply for expressing their views on religious freedoms and criticising the authorities, Jurayev replied: "I think extremist materials were seized from them, and that is why."
Told that Forum 18 has seen no evidence of extremism in the indictment, and was told by the bloggers' defence that the security agencies also could not produce such evidence, asked why he is so sure about it, he brushed it off: "I don't know the details."
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán, visited Uzbekistan in September. He noted that "challenges continue to undermine the independence of the judiciary as an institution and the capacity of individual judges to decide the case before them solely on the basis of their conscience and in accordance with the law and the facts of the case" (see below).
Meanwhile, officials refused to explain why Muslim prisoner of conscience Khayrullo Tursunov has not been amnestied in view of the recent amnesties or pardonings of a number of Muslim prisoners of conscience or why Tursunov's relatives have not been allowed to visit him in prison in recent months (see below).
Defending hijab wearers
The two Muslim bloggers - Tulkun Tashmuradovich Astanov (born 25 April 1971) and Rustambek Abdurashidovich Karimov (born 1 June 1975) - met in March.
Both were present in Tashkent's Shaykhantaur District Court to observe when two Muslim women, Luiza Muminjanova and Nazimakhon Abdukakharova, tried unsuccessfully to challenge the ban on wearing the hijab
(Muslim head covering for women).
"The Court upheld the ban, which neither Astanov nor Karimov, present in the Court, liked," human rights defender Komilov told Forum 18. "It is then the two exchanged phone numbers and agreed to go together to the Muslim Board to ask why Muslim girls are banned from wearing hijab, among other questions."
At the 8 April meeting at the Muslim Board, Astanov and Karimov asked Deputy Chief Mufti Abdulaziz Mansur 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 and Karimov of being "hooligans", and being disrespectful to the Muftiate's alleged "spiritual leadership". Police were called and later in the day officers arrested Astanov and Karimov.
Terrorism Police "illegally opened criminal case"
A Tashkent court jailed Astanov and Karimov on 8 April for 15 days
for criticising Uzbekistan's lack of freedom of religion and belief. They were arrested and jailed the same day they met the state-controlled Spiritual Administration of Muslims, or Muftiate. Astanov was released late at night on 24 April, a day after the 15-day jail term expired. But Karimov continued to be held in State Security Service (SSS) secret police custody.
However, before the 15-day jail term had ended, SSS secret police launched a criminal case against the two men.
"We believe that Officers of Olmazor District Terrorism Police arrested Astanov and Karimov near the building of the Muftiate and brought them to Olmazor District Police Station on 8 April," human rights defender Komilov complained to Forum 18. "There they at first opened an administrative case against them, and then on the completion of the 15 days, on 22 April they opened a criminal case against them before releasing Astanov from custody."
Komilov explained that "It is a usual procedure the law-enforcement organs use, they put defendants in custody to keep them under pressure to cooperate and it is easier to fabricate criminal cases this way."
The criminal case then was taken up and led from 23 April by SSS secret police Investigator Major Bakhoddinov, Komilov told Forum 18.
"Terrorism Police violated the law and illegally opened the criminal case," Komilov complained. He explained that on 8 April, Muslim Board officials had called the regular Police to complain of alleged hooligan acts of Astanov and Karimov, the Police that brought them to the police station under the hooliganism charges.
"However, we realised it was the Terrorism Police which arrived and apprehended the bloggers, and later questioned them in the police station." Komilov insisted that this is illegal. "The Terrorism Police is according to the Law involved only in criminal cases."
"Charges have been fabricated"
Prosecutors brought charges against Astanov under Criminal Code Article 244-1, Part 3 Point (d) ("production or storage with the purpose of distribution of materials that contain ideas of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism, calls for pogroms or violent expulsion of citizens, or aimed at creating a panic among the population, as well as production, storage with the purpose of distribution or demonstration of attributes or symbols of religious-extremist terrorist organisations", committed "with use of the media or telecommunication networks as well as the internet"). This carries a maximum punishment of five to eight years' imprisonment.
Prosecutors brought charges against Karimov under Criminal Code Article 244-1, Part 1 ("production or storage with the purpose of distribution of materials that contain ideas of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism, calls for pogroms or violent expulsion of citizens, or aimed at creating a panic among the population, as well as production, storage with the purpose of distribution or demonstration of attributes or symbols of religious-extremist terrorist organisations"). This carries a maximum punishment of three years' imprisonment.
Komilov complained to Forum 18 that the "charges have been fabricated" and that Astanov and Karimov are being prosecuted for "actively raising the religious freedom issues of Muslims in Uzbekistan with the authorities on their social media pages, as well as for having dared to go directly to the Muslim Board to discuss the ban on the hijab and other issues with officials there."
The criminal investigation was led by Investigator Major B. Bakhoddinov of the SSS secret police.
The 25 July indictment - signed by Tashkent City Prosecutor Bakhriddin Valiyev and SSS secret police Investigator Major A. Zufarov and seen by Forum 18 - claims that "extremist materials belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organisation were found on the mobile phone seized from Astanov during questioning".
Nowhere does the indictment say exactly what the alleged ISIS materials are, nor is any proof given of any link between the materials found on Astanov's phone and ISIS. The "extremist" materials found on Astanov's Facebook page are a video clip on the hadith (sayings) by Muslim Prophet Muhammad on the fate of Syria, which displayed the flag of the Hizb ut-Tahrir Muslim movement banned in Uzbekistan.
Also on Astanov's Facebook page were several Muslim texts with the titles "Counsel by Religious Masters," "Sheikh Sodik Samarkandi on wearing hijab", "Identity of Muslim girls", "Novruz holiday (fireworship festival) is haram (forbidden) for Muslims", "[Western] New Year celebration forbidden for Muslims".
"The only allegedly extremist thing the investigators could find in my materials, was the miniscule flag of Hizb ut-Tahrir in that video," Astanov told Forum 18 on 4 October. "I downloaded it from the internet since I was looking for the hadith of the Prophet on the fate of Syria, and unfortunately I was not careful enough to notice that flag."
Astanov added that he immediately removed the video from his Facebook account after the Investigators told him about it. "In fact, long before I downloaded the video I had warned my readers about ISIS and Hizb ut-Tahrir and all the other extremist organisations." Forum 18 on 4 October verified the truthfulness of this on Astanov's Facebook account.
The indictment claims that the authorities found on the mobile phone of Karimov, the other defendant, "audio files which contain insulting statements against state officials" as well as "insults against Muslim Board officials" in the form of caricatures on his Facebook page.
Prosecutors handed the criminal case against Astanov and Karimov to Tashkent City Court, where it was assigned to Judge Orif Klychev. The trial began on 23 August.
On the petition of defence lawyer Zhumashev, Judge Klychev questioned Mahmud Tolipov, Chief of Olmazor District Terrorism Police, and his subordinate Senior Lieutenant Botyr Kholikiy during the 30 September hearing.
"Officer Kholikiy admitted that he participated in the detention of the bloggers near the Muftiate building," Komilov told Forum 18. Kholikiy told the Court that the bloggers did not resist their arrest. However, he could "not answer our question based on what grounds the Terrorism Police was involved in the arrest."
Komilov added that "Chief Tolipov claimed to the Court that he is not related to this case at all, and Judge Klychev asked him no further questions."
Komilov told Forum 18 that among the Terrorism Police officers who interrogated the bloggers was Officer A. Khusainov (first name not shown in the case files).
Khusainov in the 23 September hearing claimed that he "only prepared a report of the confiscation of the phones but did not participate in the arrest or questioning of the defendants," Komilov said. "We asked him on what grounds officers of the Terrorism Police participated in the administrative case, and he could not answer."
On 9 October the State Prosecutor Azizbek Islamov, representing Tashkent City Prosecutor's Office, asked the Court to give Astanov a five-year suspended sentence, and Karimov a three and a half year jail term. The two men gave their final addresses to the court on 14 October. The verdict might be handed down as early as 18 October.
Judge Klychev's Assistant, Begzod (who refused to give his last name), who answered the Judge's number several times between 4 and 10 October, refused to tell Forum 18 why a criminal case was opened against Astanov and Karimov. He also refused to put Forum 18 through to any other officials. "I already told you that no one from the Court will give any comments to you. You need to ask the Supreme Court's permission to talk to us," he told Forum 18 on 10 October.
Tashkent Court's Chancellery officials (no names were given) between 4 and 10 October refused to answer Forum 18's questions regarding the case or put it through to Judge Klychev or to Bakhtiyar Islamov, the Court's Chair.
Phones in Tashkent City Prosecutor's Office went unanswered between 9 and 10 October.
Asked why a criminal case was opened against Astanov and Karimov, Olmazor District Police officials (who did not give their names) on 4 October referred Forum 18 to Olmazor Terrorism Police Chief Talipov and Officer Kholikiy.
Reached by Forum 18 on the same day and asked about the case both officers claimed that it was a wrong number. When Forum 18 clarified with Olmazor Police that the numbers are correct and called back, Chief Talipov brushed off Forum 18. "What now, are you threatening me?" He then put the phone down.
The duty officer, who answered the phone of the SSS secret police headquarters in Tashkent on 4 October, wrote down Forum 18's question why bloggers Astanov and Karimov were accused by the secret police of extremism simply for criticising the Muslim Board and the State for violation of the rights of Muslims and for sharing teachings of some Imams and Hadith on their social media accounts, but did not answer it.
The SSS officer also refused to put Forum 18 through to Investigator Bakhoddinov or other responsible officials. "I cannot do so, but only write down your complaint," he answered. "I do not have such information," was his response, when Forum 18 asked how it can get in touch with any secret police officers involved in the case.
United Nations concerns over judicial independence
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Diego Garcia-Sayán, visited Uzbekistan in late September as the trial of the two bloggers continued.
In his 25 September statement at the end of his visit
, Garcia-Sayán noted that "a number of challenges continue to undermine the independence of the judiciary as an institution and the capacity of individual judges to decide the case before them solely on the basis of their conscience and in accordance with the law and the facts of the case".
"Substantial threats against judicial independence and the rule of law remain," Garcia-Sayán warned. He pointed to the heavy and constant presence of the security services throughout society and Uzbekistan's institutions. He was also concerned about broad powers that prosecutors retain in criminal proceedings, which limit the independence of judges to decide cases autonomously and in accordance with his or her conscience.
"The system as a whole should have a clearer human rights focus," Garcia-Sayán added.
Tursunov's relatives denied prison visits
Abdulla (he refused to give his last name), Press Secretary of the Interior Ministry's Chief Directorate for the Impementation of Punishments, which oversees prisons, refused to tell Forum 18 why Muslim prisoner of conscience Khayrullo Tursunov has not been amnestied in view of the recent amnesties or pardonings of a number of Muslim prisoners of conscience or why Tursunov's relatives were not allowed to visit him in prison in recent months.
Abdulla also refused to put Forum 18 through to Bakhrombek Adylov, Deputy Interior Minister, Head of the Chief Directorate, or any other officials. "Please send your questions in writing," he told Forum 18. When it asked for the email or mailing address, he consulted with some officials but then put the phone down without saying anything. Subsequent calls on the same day went unanswered.
Kazakhstan illegally extradited Khayrullo Turdiyevich Tursunov (born 4 April 1975) to Uzbekistan in March 2013. He was sentenced in June 2013 to 16 years in jail for meeting privately with other Muslims without state permission to study the Koran and pray. Shortly after his sentence, Tursunov was apparently deliberately exposed by the regime to the potentially fatal disease of tuberculosis.
Officials from the southern Kashkadarya Region – possibly from the SSS secret police – arrived at the Labour Camp in Karshi in Bukhara Region where Tursunov is being held. They tortured him over a period of six hours on 17 April and threatened to extend his jail term.
They were trying to extract false testimony against a distant relative who has lived outside Uzbekistan since 2006. Tursunov refused to sign the pre-prepared statement.
Prison authorities have refused Tursunov's relatives permission to visit him in Karshi prison in recent months, Bayramali Yusupov, his distant relative who lives abroad, told Forum 18 on 2 October 2019. "Khayrullo is still in prison, and a couple of days ago I was told that for the last couple of months the prison authorities have not allowed relatives to visit him."
Yusupov lamented to Forum 18 that "when Khayrullo was arrested up to 30 Uzbek citizens were arrested at the same time in a fabricated case. Allegedly they cooperated and organised an extremist organisation. Almost all of them have been released from prison except for Khayrullo."
A Muslim man - released after a lengthy jail term from the prison where Tursunov is held - told Yusupov by phone that Tursunov's prison is a "strict regime prison, and the authorities do not as a rule release prisoners from there directly". He said that Tursunov "should be moved to a less strict regime prison at first and only then he could be amnestied". The former prisoner has not seen Tursunov personally and does not know his conditions, Yusupov told Forum 18.
Tursunov's Labour Camp address is:
Tursunov Khayrullo Turdiyevich