Authorities in Uzbekistan are searching private homes for what they consider incendiary material -- Bibles.
Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog, says that Roman Nizamutdinov, a Baptist living in Navoi, was fined 2,516,800 Uzbek sums (a hefty amount, considering the monthly minimum wage in Uzbekistan is around 72,355) for "illegally" storing religious books in his private home.
The judge presiding over the case, Oltynbek Mansurov of Navoi Criminal Court, said the books were affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that only has official permission to exist in Tashkent Region, but presumably not Navoi. Forum 18 says the books were actually Protestant books, like “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell. Nizamutdinov says he will contest the fine.
In early August, in the Fergana Region, local Protestants told Forum 18 that police searched the home of a local Christian and confiscated “one Bible in Uzbek, one Bible in Russian, and a book by John Bunyan,” the 17th-century English preacher best known for his Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” According to local residents, police said it is prohibited to keep “such books at home.”
Uzbekistan has adopted a law banning foreign military bases on its territory, ending feverish speculation that a rapprochement with the United States – and recent distancing from Moscow – was the precursor to Tashkent welcoming the US military back in.
Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy doctrine, passed by the lower house of parliament on August 2, specifically prohibits foreign military bases from operating on its territory, the government-run Uzdaily.com website reported.
Speculation that President Islam Karimov was preparing to welcome the US military had been fed by Washington’s courting of Uzbekistan ahead of the drawdown of troops from neighboring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is a key cog on the Northern Distribution Network supply route into and out of Afghanistan, and the US operated a military base in the country until 2005, when Tashkent ejected it following Washington's criticism of the shooting of protestors in Andijan.
In June, Tashkent’s abrupt suspension of its membership in the Russia-led regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) also fed the rumor mill.
The US State Department’s annual terrorism report, released this week, provides a brief overview of how Foggy Bottom views terrorist threats abroad. On Central Asia, unfortunately, the cautious survey adds little to our understanding of the problem.
In its introduction to the region, the report notes that Central Asian governments “faced the challenge” of balancing human rights with security concerns. Further down, the report lists myriad examples where authorities heavily favored security, often at the expense of basic human rights.
State hedges on Central Asian governments’ tendency to hype threats. For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – “reportedly”; “potentially” – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us.
The report does cautiously point out that Central Asian governments’ widespread human rights abuses may end up creating terrorists.
For example, Kazakhstan’s 2010 amendments to the law on “religious activities” had “severely restricted the peaceful practice of religion,” the report says, adding that some commentators linked subsequent violent incidents to the new law.
In the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sections, the report states the widely held belief that the three countries misuse counterterrorism statutes to persecute legitimate political and religious actors. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite their well-documented use of the same playbook, are not censured directly on this point.
The London Olympics have offered mixed successes for Central Asia in their first week.
Kazakhstan got off to a great start, meeting its target of three gold medals in the first four days of competition. Uzbekistan has picked up a bronze and also the dubious distinction of seeing a gymnast kicked out for failing a drug test. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have yet to trouble the winner's podium.
Kazakhstan's weightlifting sensations Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza struck gold on July 29 and July 31, after cyclist Alexander Vinokourov sped to victory on July 28.
The victories were not without controversy, however. Chinshanlo and Maneza's roots were called into question, as some years previously they had been part of China's weightlifting set-up. A Kazakh official refuted charges the athletes had no right to represent Kazakhstan.
“We led them to this victory for a whole Olympic cycle, and before that they were already members of our national team,” Aleksey Kryuchkov, acting head of the sporting body in charge of Kazakhstan's national teams, told KTK television.
It's been a busy games for Kryuchkov, who also had a kit malfunction to deal with. Some weightlifters from Kazakhstan were shown in competition wearing uniforms reading “Kzakhstan.” An investigation revealed five or six rogue, misspelled T-shirts.
Two independent journalists have been detained in Uzbekistan’s capital for taking photos of a local market.
Reporters Without Borders writes that police stopped the two journalists, Pavel Kravets and Sid Yanyshev, around 1700 on July 30 at Askia Market in Tashkent. While the two say they were taking photos of the market for stories about Uzbekistan’s upcoming Independence Day, the police accused the two of “pursuing a strategic goal.”
According to an emailed statement from the Tashkent-based Human Rights Aliance, the police released the two men that evening after destroying their materials and instructing them to return to the local police station the following day with their passports.
Throughout Central Asia, photographers will often find themselves harassed by authorities (and/or local thugs) for snapping just about anything, from colorful markets and city scenes to so-called strategic objects, like government buildings and railroad stations. ("The whole world can see this on Google Earth," isn't generally an effective defense.)
But Uzbekistan, where pictures of anything aside from smiling children and monumental architecture are generally frowned upon by the government, takes the paranoia to a new level. In 2010, celebrated Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova was found guilty of “slander” by an Uzbek court for her images documenting the difficulties of rural life and the life of women. Under intense international pressure, the court amnestied her before she served any time in prison. (See some of her photos here.)
A bit bruised and on vastly inferior financial terms, Russian cell operator MTS is returning to Turkmenistan.
In a July 26 statement, MTS said authorities in Ashgabat had granted the company a five-year contract for mobile operations, with the possibility of another five-year extension if all goes well. Both sides, the statement said, have agreed to drop legal action against one another.
The hitch? The new agreement with state-run Altyn Asyr requires MTS to pay the company 30 percent of its net profits every month.
MTS was kicked out of Turkmenistan in late 2010 after Ashgabat abruptly suspended the company’s operating license. Since then, MTS has tried to get the government to pay the $137.8 million it claims to have lost when it was booted out of the country, and rumors have circled regularly that MTS would return. As EurasiaNet.org has reported, the dithering and overloaded Altyn Asyr is not loved by most Turkmen, and some have even saved their MTS SIM cards hoping that one day the operator would return.
According to Reuters, MTS claims its cell towers and equipment in Turkmenistan are still in good shape, so its 2.4 million former customers should be able to reconnect soon.
Visitors to a popular local news site posted comments celebrating MTS’ return. But after years of speculation, some were skeptical. “It’s really not sure whether this will happen or not,” said a user identified as Kerki.
A clash on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan frontier that left one dead on each side has sparked a spat between Tashkent and Bishkek about who was responsible. In response, Tashkent has reportedly closed the border to citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek says the July 17 shootout occurred when Uzbek border guards opened fire as a dispute with local villagers got out of hand. But Tashkent, after reportedly firing the head of the Border Service, has upped the ante by describing it as an “armed bandit attack” by Kyrgyz guards, regional media report.
The shootout happened in an undemarcated (hence potentially disputed) sector of the border between eastern Uzbekistan’s Namangan Region and southern Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad Province.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, villagers from the settlement of Bulak-Bashi and staff from the nearby Bozymchak gold mine started repairing a road in the undemarcated sector, refusing to heed Kyrgyz guards’ entreaties to stop.
When border guards from Uzbekistan demanded a halt to the repairs, villagers “reacted aggressively,” Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service said, in comments carried by Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency. “As a result the border detachment of Uzbekistan used weapons; Kyrgyz border guards opened return fire,” it continued, leaving one Kyrgyz border guard dead and two Kyrgyz citizens wounded.
After seven years of filming, thousands of interviews, and the arrest, torture and even murder of some of his sources, journalist-turned-activist Michael Andersen is about to release his documentary investigating the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan.
On May 13, 2005, military forces loyal to President Islam Karimov opened fire on protestors in the eastern city of Andijan. Uzbekistan has ignored calls for an impartial investigation and said it was battling Islamic militants, rather than peaceful protestors. The official death count is 187, while some activists say over 1,000 may have perished.
Andersen, a Dane, was inspired to make the film because of what he calls the “hypocrisy of Western governments who coddle Karimov in exchange for military supply routes and basing rights to support the war in Afghanistan.” Andersen has covered the region since 2000, and lived in Uzbekistan from 2000 to 2002. He was unable to film in Uzbekistan, however: He says Uzbek authorities “utterly ignored” 28 applications for a visa and repeated requests for comment. Instead, he relied on footage collected over the years from numerous sources and on interviews with witnesses outside the country.
The film, “Massacre in Uzbekistan,” seeks to inform Westerners about the events and shine a spotlight on the pattern of engaging (now fallen) dictators like the Shah of Iran and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But more importantly, perhaps, Andersen hopes to reach Uzbeks who, he says, don't even know about the tragedy, by translating the film into Uzbek and Russian and putting it online – the only space for free information that Karimov has trouble controlling.
Customers line up outside a Ucell office in Tashkent on July 18. MTS clients mobbed rival mobile providers after the company was forced to suspend operations in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has suspended the operations of Russia’s largest cellphone company amid accusations of legal violations in the use of equipment, prompting an exodus to other operators and sending rumors swirling that vested economic interests are behind the move.
The suspension of all operations of O’zdunrobita, MTS’s Uzbekistan arm, took effect in Uzbekistan from 6pm on July 17 for 10 working days, under a decree from Tashkent’s Communications and IT Agency.
The shutdown left 9.5 million clients -- a third of Uzbekistan’s 29.5-million population -- without MTS mobile communications at least until July 31.
MTS insists it has complied with all government requirements and is operating within the law. A July 17 press release spoke of “ungrounded attacks” on its business, including the shutdown and “the use of the tactic of intimidation and arrest of O’zdunrobita staff.” Five managers are in detention facing criminal charges, while general director Bekzod Akhmedov has fled Uzbekistan.
The arrests came after what MTS described as “synchronized inspections” over recent months, leading to accusations of tax evasion, theft and breaches of Uzbekistan’s complicated currency regulations.
MTS customers reportedly mobbed other providers to buy new SIM cards. “People are going crazy trying to get numbers from other companies,” said a Tashkent resident who subscribes to rival operator Perfectum Mobile on condition of anonymity on July 18.