In the wake of the bombings in London, many concerned with civil liberties are anxious that the counterterrorism measures presented by Tony Blair in recent weeks will risk criminalising valid forms of dissent and threaten our freedom of peaceful expression and association.
Uzbekistan too has suffered terrorist attacks, and the authorities have been quick to blame Islamic extremists for the bombings and shootings in recent years. This former Soviet republic in Central Asia has a large Muslim population, and is a worrying example of a country where repressive state control over Muslim affairs has become the norm, resulting in the continual persecution and detention of those that dissent.
President Karimov’s regime is well known for its suppression of free expression and its appalling human rights record. The events in the eastern city of Andijan of May 2005 served to illustrate that worldwide concerns are justified. Protests against the imprisonment of several people charged with Islamic extremism turned violent and troops opened fire. Witnesses later reported a bloodbath, with hundreds of civilian deaths. When the US joined other countries in demanding a full inquiry into the violence and threatened to withhold aid, it was told to vacate its military base in the south of the country within six months.
Although Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country, Karimov views devout followers with suspicion, and those who do not toe the government line find themselves accused of extremism and under threat of imprisonment. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘discrimination, harassment and criminal prosecutions of Muslims … remain commonplace’.
One poignant example of this is the case of award-winning young journalist Sobirjon Yakubov, who was arrested in April this year and joins two other Muslim writers already in prison. Gayrat Mehliboev and Khayrullah Ernazarov are both serving seven-year sentences for their alleged allegiance to the Hizb ut-Tahir (an extremist Islamic movement), in spite of there being insufficient evidence to suggest that either was affiliated to the organisation.
Accusations of terrorism have also been used as a means of imprisoning members of the banned Erk opposition party. Its leader, Muhamed Salih (also a writer), fled the country in the mid-1990s. And in June 2004 I wrote in these pages about the case of journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, who has been imprisoned in Uzbekistan since 1999, charged with ‘threatening the constitutional order’.
According to PEN (the international association of writers), 22-year-old Yakubov was studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Tashkent National University and had been awarded a prestigious government fellowship. He had been contributing to the state-run newspaper, Hurriyat (‘Freedom’), since 2001. Some years ago President Karimov himself reportedly awarded Yakubov personally signed books for his journalism.
The promising young journalist had recently visited Saudi Arabia to carry out a hadj to Mecca. On his return he wrote a series of articles for Hurriyat about this experience, entitled ‘A Journey to Dreamland’. On 11 April 2005 Yakubov was arrested at his home in Tashkent and he was charged three days later with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and belonging to an extremist organisation. The maximum penalty those charges carry is twenty years in prison. Tashkent Prison is renowned for its appalling conditions, and religious and political detainees suffer particularly harsh treatment.
Fellow journalists are reportedly shocked by the charges, pointing out that Yakubov has also written on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. Although he is a deeply devout Muslim, they do not believe that Yakubov was a member of an extremist group.
Many believe that Yakubov is in fact being held because of another article published in Hurriyat (on 16 March 2005), in which he reflected on the ‘velvet revolutions’ that have occurred in Georgia, Ukraine and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, and suggested that similar events could take place in Uzbekistan. Yakubov described the case of the murdered Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, whose brutal killing in 2000 was one of the factors that led to the overthrow of Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma. Senior staff working for the former president were found to have been complicit in the murder, which, it is believed, was instigated by Kuchma himself. Yakubov wrote that Gongadze’s death ‘became a driving force [for Ukrainians] to realise the necessity of democratic reforms and freedom’. It is thought that Yakubov’s reference to recent upheavals in neighbouring regimes, and his suggestion that Uzbekistan could face a similar fate, was perceived by the Uzbek authorities as undermining the government.
Human Rights Watch believes nearly 7,000 people have been imprisoned since the Uzbek government began its campaign against independent Islam in the mid-1990s, a campaign justified by reference to the ‘war on terror’.
Readers may like to send appeals expressing concern that Sobirjon Yakubov is detained solely for his peaceful writings and calling for his release to:
President Islam Abduganievch Karimov
Republic of Uzbekistan
Fax: 00 998 71 139 5625