On May 31, a 57-year-old woman from Navai region was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom for liking a social media post in 2018, when she was in Turkey. The video she “liked” on the Odnoklassniki.ru social media platform was a religious speech in Uzbek delivered by a person named Rafik Kamalov.
It could have been a video of the late imam Muhammadrafiq Kamalov, who was born in Kyrgyzstan. He was famous for his lectures on politics and Islam before he was reportedly killed in a 2006 special joint operation between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan against alleged members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Kamalov was, and remains, a controversial figure.
The video lecture essentially claimed that people who do not offer namaz, a ritual prayer to be observed five times a day by Muslims, “have no proof of being a Muslim, have no right to consider themselves a Muslim.” The court verdict said that the video is full of “ideas of religious fanaticism, and it is prohibited to import, prepare and distribute it (the video) in the territory of Uzbekistan.” Although the woman was outside Uzbekistan, the verdict maintains that when she liked the video she distributed it to her 130 virtual friends on the platform.
Over the past year or so there has been a rise in these kinds of cases in Uzbekistan. Young people in particular are facing prison terms for sharing religious content with their friends on social media platforms. In January 2023, 21-year-old Sardor Rahmankulov was sentenced to five years for sending a nasheed – an Islamic song – to a friend via Telegram back in 2020. He was held in prison for six months during the trial and was allegedly “ferociously” tortured. In May, 21-year-old student Jahongir Ulughmurodov was given three years imprisonment for sharing a YouTube link to a nasheed in a Telegram group chat with his classmates. The Committee of Religious Affairs found the song to be “infused with ideas of fanaticism.”
These and other reported cases created a wave of criticism both among netizens of Uzbekistan and activists. “[Y]oung people aged 19-20 are being imprisoned for a long term. Last year, a 19-year-old boy was sentenced to 12 years and 3 months. … we are at the beginning of the trend during the Karimov era,” human rights activist Abdurahmon Tashanov told Kun.uz, a local news outlet.
The 2023 annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom named Uzbekistan among the countries it recommends the U.S. State Department include on a “Special Watch List” for violations of religious freedom. The report noted that Tashkent “continued to severely restrict freedom of religion or belief through its 1998 law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, as amended in 2021, which requires religious groups to obtain registration to engage in religious activity and prohibits unregistered religious activity, the private teaching of religion, missionary activity, and proselytism, in addition to other undue restrictions.”
In many cases, those arrested are young individuals, and often not even religious. Most do not speak Arabic and therefore do not understand the content of the nasheeds they share. It took a whole religious committee to identify the aforementioned nasheeds as extremist. How would a 20-year-old know?
The Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan has a published list of “organizations and resources recognized as terrorist.” The activities of these groups and dissemination of materials listed on the website are prohibited by a 2019 decision of the Supreme Court. But the list only includes 166 names and materials.
How arrests on spreading extremist materials are being handled is another side of the problem. The initial legal basis for arresting certain young people is not always clear; it’s only after they have been detained that their phones and social media accounts are scrutinized for religious content, often years-old. Ulughmuradov’s mother said law enforcement representatives said that they were taking her son due to a theft that had occurred nearby. She insists neither she herself nor Ulughmurodov knew what a nasheed was. “My son said ‘I listened to it as a song,’” the mother said in a video appeal to the president and the Supreme Court, begging for a second chance for her son.
In another similar case, last year in April, 20-year-old Abdurahim Abdughaniyev’s phone was checked by representatives of the Department of Combating Terrorism and Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They found prohibited religious material in Abdughaniyev’s phone. The court verdict declared that Abdughaniyev “downloaded it from the Internet without knowing that it was a prohibited material, and then sent it to two friends” via Telegram. Yet, among other charges, the 20-year-old was charged under Article 159 of the Criminal Code. The article is reserved for cases of “openly calling for unconstitutional change of the current state system… usurpation of power or removal of legally elected or appointed representatives of the authorities, or violation of the territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan in violation of the Constitution,” as well as acting to “prepare, store or distribute materials of such content for the purpose of distribution.”
Ruslan Saburov, a journalist at Kun.uz, notes that the same article was used in a trial against “the organizers of demonstrations and riots” of the 2022 Karakalpakstan unrest. Abdughaniyev was sentenced to six years in prison although there was no proof of him attacking the constitutional regime. Later, the regional court changed his sentence to 3.5 years following an appeal.
As of publication, eight more people have been detained with charges of “failure to report terrorist acts” and “financing terror” in Tashkent. Their relatives claim the accused had a Telegram group where they collected money for donation purposes. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek Service, Ozodlik, reports that there are bloggers among the arrested who cover religious topics on Uzbek social media platforms. The case is being held in a closed court as there might be other “accomplices who are not yet known to the investigation.” This may chill reporting on the case, with bloggers and journalists concerned that they could be named next.
In Mirziyoyev’s New Uzbekistan, religious freedom remains as oppressed as it was in the old Karimov era. Although Mirziyoyev released religious and political prisoners in his initial years in power, those emptied cells are again being filled with new inmates. Men with long beards are frequently detained on streets and forced to shave, while women are harassed for wearing hijabs. Religious publications are controlled. To compare, many groups or materials that are restricted in Uzbekistan are not illegal in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, yet Kyrgyzstan has not turned into a caliphate.
The authorities in Tashkent see a political enemy in any version of Islamic practice that is not approved (that is, controlled) by the state. The situation, however, might get even worse. On July 9, Uzbekistan will hold a snap presidential election, and Mirziyoyev will win. After the election his regime will have nothing to lose, and the crackdown on the regime’s critics — journalists, activists, as well as religious community — will harshen further.