Following a closed trial, Fatima Mukhadirova received the maximum six-year sentence February 12 stemming from her conviction on various charges, including possession of unsanctioned religious literature, membership in a banned religion organization, and the "attempted encroachment on the constitutional order" for activities undertaken on behalf of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical, underground Islamic group that is banned in Uzbekistan. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Observers say the conviction was politically motivated -- designed to punish her for calling attention to the suspicious death of her son, Muzafar Avazov.
Avazov, 35, was a Hizb-ut-Tahrir member who, rights advocates maintain, was tortured to death in prison in August 2002. Prison authorities claimed Avazov died after fellow inmates spilled hot tea on him. But a forensic report, based on evidence studied by pathologists at Glasgow University, determined that Avazov had been immersed in boiling water. His body also showed signs of substantial bruising around his head and neck, and his fingernails were missing.
Mukhadirova, was arrested after she called for an investigation into Avazov's death. In an attempt to attract international support for her cause, she sent photographs of his corpse to the British Embassy the same photos that eventually ended up being analyzed at Glasgow University. The British ambassador in Tashkent, Craig Murray, characterized the sentence as "appalling" in comments published by the London Guardian. Murray went on to suggest that Mukhadirova's chances of her surviving in prison were "very limited."
Representatives of the New York-based Human Rights Watch HRW say the Mukhadirova case underscores the need for the Bush administration to designate Uzbekistan as a violator or religious freedom under the US International Religious Freedom act. "It is time for the United States to acknowledge that one of its key allies [in Central Asia] is systematically abusing the rights of Muslims," Rachel Denber, HRW's the acting executive director of the group's Europe and Central Asia Division, said in a written statement.
The United States allied itself with Uzbekistan following the September 11 terrorist tragedy. Tashkent subsequently allowed the US military to establish a support base at Khanabad that provides logistical support for troops conducting anti-terrorist operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
Uzbek authorities have been persecuting independent Muslims which HRW defines as "Muslims who practice their faith outside of government-controlled mosques -- since a terrorist bombing incident in Tashkent in 1999. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In recent years, US officials have been reluctant to exert pressure on Uzbekistan over its human rights behavior out of concern that such action might damage anti-terrorist cooperation.
To underline Uzbekistan's strategic importance for the United States, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had intended to travel to Tashkent to meet with Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in early December. The visit was canceled at the last moment due to bad weather. Nevertheless, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman visited with Karimov last November, calling Uzbekistan a "strategic ally of the United States" and offering both food aid and assistance in developing Uzbekistan's agricultural sector.
US diplomats have largely relied on quiet diplomacy in trying to cajole Uzbek officials into improving the country's human rights record. HRW estimates that at least 6,000 Muslims in Uzbekistan have been imprisoned because of their religious beliefs during the ongoing crackdown. Uzbek leaders, from Karimov on down, have made repeated promises to liberalize the country's social and economic framework, but have taken no action to fulfill their pledges. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]
There is hope among human rights activists that the Mukhadirova case may prove a turning point in how the United States and other nations deal with Uzbekistan. "This case shows like no other the bad faith of the Uzbek government," said Acacia Shields, a Central Asia researcher for HRW. Rather than implementing reforms, Uzbekistan "has been conducting business a usual, while shutting people up."
"Uzbekistan cannot be a good ally for the United States in the struggle against terrorism unless it stops persecuting Muslims for the peaceful expression of their faith," added Tom Malinowski, HRW's Washington director.
Jim Lobe is a freelance reporter specializing in financial affairs. He is based in Washington.