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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Karimov's Crackdown

Once again resorting to violence, the authorities of Uzbekistan have suppressed a protest action calling attention to the repression of local religious leaders in Kokand.

Since April 7, there has been a continuous, mass action of civil disobedience in Kokand's main mosque, which was prompted by the arrest of a number of local spiritual leaders since last August. In all cases, the leaders were arrested under the formal charge of "illegal possession of weapons and narcotics." The first to be arrested were the elder imam of the mosque, Mukhammad Radzhab, and his deputy, Sadyk Atadzhanov.

It is characteristic of Islam Karimov's regime that all those arrested were taken to Tashkent and that, despite the simplicity of the charges, they have not been brought to trial. The government has responded to all inquiries with disinformation.

The Kokand protest involved several hundred individuals, including women and children. Participants kept a strict Moslem fast and behaved in an orderly fashion, not responding to provocations by the authorities. They called for open trials for the arrested leaders in the local court of Kokand and for an end to interference from the central authorities.

The protestors believe that Radzhab was arrested because, unlike most of his colleagues, he refused to pray for the glory of President Karimov and refused to sing the praises of the authorities. Instead, he discussed the real problems that believers face in Uzbekistan, including limitations on religious freedom and contradictions between a number of aspects of life in Uzbekistan and Islamic law. The latter include the acceptance of the Christian calender since the country gained independence, the celebration of New Year's on Jan. 1 and the requirement to work on Fridays.

After various tactics failed to resolve the dispute, Karimov decided to take more forceful measures. On May 8, the Kokand mosque was surrounded by nearly 100 policemen who had arrived from Fergany and were commanded by Abdukhalil Khazratkulov, the head of the local Interior Ministry bureau on corruption and organized crime. Ignoring the sanctity of the mosque, the police forced their way in and arrested dozens of the most active protestors. All were told that they would be held under house arrest for 15 days. On the next day, the acting head of the mosque, Mukhtorzhon Dzhurayev, was also arrested.

Without its leaders, the protest melted away. People were only allowed into the mosque during prayer time. Finally, on May 13, the city authorities closed the mosque altogether without giving any explanation for their actions. It is now locked and constantly guarded. In addition, the authorities have initiated an active campaign to discredit the detainees and their supporters.

The situation in Kokand is slowly settling down. However, these events are just the latest of many in recent years as the Uzbek authorities have tried to establish complete control over the population's religious life and to limit the influence of religion -- and not just of Islam.

Between 1988 and 1992, with the help of outside financial support from Arab countries, many new mosques were built: For example, more than 100 were soon operating in the relatively small city of Kokand where previously there had been only a handful. Women began to dress in traditional white garb, and Islamic literature that had been banned in Soviet times was sold freely everywhere. Islamic teachers began appearing on television.

The authorities seemed to be positively disposed toward the process of religious revival and attempted to use it for their own ends. Islam became a key element in the government's ideology of "return to traditional values" and religious rhetoric occasionally appeared in Karimov's speeches. Unable to deal with growing crime alone, the government encouraged the formation of a voluntary militia that espoused social order based on traditional Islamic codes of conduct.

At the same time, the authorities tried to control the politicization of religion. One former Communist Party functionary who is now a successful businessman told me in 1991 that the government was extremely concerned about what was going on in the religious sphere and saw this as the greatest threat to its position.

This balancing act continued until the beginning of 1992. Since then, though, the situation has gotten increasingly out of control. Political calls have become increasingly common in the mosques, many of them collecting funds and recruiting volunteers to fight with fundamentalists in Tajikistan. The breaking point came in November 1992, when Karimov was on a campaign stop in Namangan. There, he was literally kidnapped by a crowd of local residents who forced him to promise that after he was elected, he would make Uzbekistan a fundamentalist republic and turn the local Communist Party headquarters into an Islamic center.

Karimov was obviously shocked by this event. In January 1993, he responded brutally to student protests in Tashkent, the so-called "Tashkent Tiananmen." Since that time, observers have characterized the political process in Uzbekistan as a steadily increasing dictatorship. There have been policies of repression, even terror, against all opposition forces, including the democrats. There is a long list of dissidents and prisoners of conscience.

Religious repression has grown markedly. The Religious Directorate of the cabinet of ministers has been revived and now controls all aspects of religious life, especially contact with foreign Islamic organizations. The organs of national security follow events in this area closely. The construction of new mosques has come to a halt as foreign financial assistance has been outlawed. The process of religious revival in Uzbekistan -- which admittedly was sometimes prone to excess -- has come to an end and is now being reversed.

Albert Musin is the executive director of the Information Center on Human Rights in Central Asia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.