The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report this week, recommending the State Department list several states in Central Asia as “countries of particular concern,” places where the government commits or tolerates egregious violations of religious liberty. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are, of course, well-established members of this club. However, Tajikistan is recommended for inclusion for the first time. It has been on the USCIRF’s watch list since 2009.
Tajikistan’s recommendation for CPC designation comes in response to the recent and ongoing expansion of regulations governing religious practice such as the new parental responsibility law banning minors from most types of religious activities and new, harsher penalties for violations of religious laws. Additionally, Tajikistan continued to shut down unregistered mosques in 2011. It comes as no surprise that Tajikistan’s government says that these laws are necessary to protect society, especially children, from extremist influences.
The report has a 10 page detailed summary of Tajikistan’s various laws restricting religion and the actions it has taken to repress religion and use laws on religion to target its political and media critics.1
Turkmenistan 2 and Uzbekistan 3 earn their recommendations for their pervasively totalitarian approach to governing religion and persecuting those who step out of the narrow boundaries of acceptable practice. For Uzbekistan, the USCIRF additionally has compiled in the full report’s appendices (PDF) a list of prisoners arrested and/or sentenced from January 2011 to February 2012 for Muslim religious activities or affiliation with a Muslim group. The list includes 65 names of individuals primarily prosecuted under articles 244-2 or 216 for membership or participation in the activities of illegal religious organizations. Almost all of the cases cited were tried in or near Tashkent, meaning the full list of those charged with these crimes over the past year is almost certainly much higher.
For each country it recommends for CPC designation, the USCIRF lists detailed policy recommendations. Many of the recommendations are fairly standard stuff — making religious freedom a high-priority issue in bilateral relationships, keeping security assistance from the ministries typically engaged in these abuses, etc. However, they recommend a 180 day window to press Uzbekistan for concrete improvements. Should those efforts fail (and one should expect they would), then they say the waivers that have been granted since 2009 should be lifted and sanctions, including a ban on visits to the US by high- and mid-level Uzbek officials should commence.
As several of us have argued many times in the past, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. or Europe have the ability to convince Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan to change their ways. One should only be slightly less pessimistic. With the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is a good time to press the need for reform and hammer that it is connected to each government’s desire to stabilize their own countries and the wider region. Unfortunately, the position of each government is likely to maintain course or crack down even harder as the international presence in Afghanistan decreases as they see they Islamic revivals going on in their countries as inextricably tied to extremist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Though the near term prospects for change in Turkmenistan, Tajikstan, and Uzbekistan are all fairly bleak, nothing is permanent, and there are hopeful signs that society will demand and force change in the longer term. Given this dynamic, the USCIRF recommendation that travel and exchange activities for civil society activists and religious leaders be expanded and protected is very welcome. In the case of Uzbekistan, they acknowledge that the government targets alumni of these exchange programs, and they recommend protesting and penalizing such harassment by refusing high-level meetings, for example. With few good options for creating change in the region, this may be one small opportunity to make a difference in the long term.
Photo credit: Flickr user Yodod.