Features

Three-minute judges

"Three-minute judges" Continued...

Issue: "Can't run or hide," Oct. 14, 2006

After Andijon hundreds of fearful Uzbeks fled the country as refugees, many across the border into Kyrgyzstan. Some have settled abroad, but the Kyrgyz government has also forced some to return. Among the groups closed was the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which was resettling some 2,000 mostly Afghan refugees-but also Uzbeks from Andijon. A March missive from Uzbekistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "UNHCR has fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan . . . the ministry requests UNHCR to close its office in Tashkent within one month." Very rarely do countries eject the refugee agency.

Religious freedom is also withering fast, according to the State Department's 2006 report. In June, Karimov signed into law amendments that make it harder to publish and distribute religious literature. A violator could face fines of 50 to 100 times the $8-a-month minimum wage. The restrictions particularly target Muslims who spread publications to share their faith.

Uzbekistan does have a legitimate problem with Islamic extremism, largely with a group called Hizb-ut-Tahrir that advocates a worldwide caliphate. But Karimov exploits the problem as an excuse to target all observant Muslims, usually accusing them of "Wahhabism" after Saudi Arabia's toxic brand of Islam. Only state-sanctioned mosques are legal.

"The whole population is being badly treated across the board," Hall said. "The problem is extreme control. I think Islamic extremism would dry up if they let the economy loose. . . . Uzbeks are really being almost driven into Islamic extremism."

Christians also have difficulties: Many congregations do not have enough members to register and worship legally. And raids against Protestant house churches are becoming more frequent. One of the latest came in August, when some 20 police and secret police officers raided a camp in the southern town of Termez. Wearing bullet-proof vests and toting automatic guns, according to the Forum 18 news service, the police arrested 20 worshippers and confiscated Bibles. The men arrested suffered systematic beatings, and authorities deported one Polish man.

Hall found Uzbek officials sometimes showed breaks in their tough line. During his organization's trial, he had to defend his publication of a health manual, and he brought copies for the judges to scan. The judges liked them so much, they asked Hall if they could keep the books. Karimov's orders may not always make sense, but for now, he reigns supreme.

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