UZBEKISTAN: "The draft Religion Law is only an advertisemen

Source:            www.forum18.org

Date:                 October 16, 2020



A Venice Commission and OSCE ODIHR opinion on the draft Religion Law has
been welcomed by human rights defenders and members of religious and belief
communities. Officials have not explained why a draft which they knew
seriously failed to implement human rights was sent for review. One Muslim
noted that: "We need to understand that the draft Law is only an
advertisement for Uzbekistan aimed at international organisations and
foreign states. If the authorities wanted real freedom for the people, then
the draft Law would have been very different."

UZBEKISTAN: "The draft Religion Law is only an advertisement"

By Felix Corley, Forum 18

A Joint Opinion of the Venice Commission and the OSCE Office for Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on Uzbekistan's draft Religion Law
was published on 12 October. The Joint Opinion finds that the draft Law
"maintains major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are
incompatible with international human rights standards". It also repeats
many points which have previously been made in 2017 by UN Special
Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed; made to and
accepted by Uzbekistan in 2018 during the UN Universal Periodic Review
Process; and made in May 2020 – before the draft Law was published and
sent for review - by the UN Human Rights Committee. Many of these points
have also already been previously made by human rights defenders and others
the regime rules Uzbekistan (see below).

The Joint Opinion has been welcomed by human rights defenders and others.
"I totally agree with all of it", a human rights defender who wished to
remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 on 13 October.
"The Religion Law must change significantly, and I do not see this change
in the draft Law" (see below).

A Muslim who asked to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told
Forum 18 on 14 October that: "We need to understand that the draft Religion
Law is only an advertisement for Uzbekistan aimed at international
organisations and foreign states. If the authorities wanted real freedom
for the people, then the draft Law would have been very different from what
it actually is", the Muslim observed  (see below).

A Protestant who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals
told Forum 18 that the draft Law is "not much different from the current
Law. We do not understand why a new Religion Law is needed if the current
Law is not going to be improved in any of its essential points" (see
below).

In contrast to people the regime rules, regime officials did not welcome
the Joint Opinion. Forum 18 asked the state-controlled National Human
Rights Centre, the Presidential Administration, the Religious Affairs
Committee, and the Parliament why the regime send the draft Religion Law
for review knowing that the draft seriously failed to implement legally
binding human rights obligations. Forum 18 also pointed to the specific
implementation recommendations made in 2017 by UN Special Rapporteur on
Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed, in 2018 during the UN Universal
Periodic Review Process, in May 2020 by the UN Human Rights Committee, and
by human rights defenders and others in Uzbekistan (see below).

Oybek Akhmadov, Deputy Chair of the state-controlled National Centre for
Human Rights, refused to explain why the prepared text was incompatible
with international human rights standards and was sent for review in that
knowledge, claiming that "we will send an e-mail to the Venice Commission
and explain the situation". Its Director is Akmal Saidov, who requested the
review and claimed to the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2020 that the
new Religion Law "would reflect the standards enshrined in the Covenant
[International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was
published on 12 October.

The Joint Opinion identifies relevant international human rights
obligations which Uzbekistan is legally and politically bound to implement.
The Joint Opinion also repeats many of the points noted above which have
previously been: made in 2017 by
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed; made to and
accepted by Uzbekistan in 2018
during the UN Universal Periodic Review Process; and made in May 2020 – before the draft Law was published
and sent for review - by the UN Human Rights Committee. Many of the Joint
Opinion's points have also already been previously made by human rights
defenders and others the regime rules Uzbekistan.

The October 2020 Joint Opinion finds that the draft Religion Law "maintains
major restrictions and suffers from deficiencies that are incompatible with
international human rights standards" Amongst the Joint Opinion's
identification of the draft Law's numerous flaws, the Joint Opinion
especially notes that the draft Law:

- "still bans unregistered religious or belief activities and communities"

- "imposes stringent and burdensome registration requirements"

- "provides various prohibitions or strict limitations regarding the
exercise of the right to freedom of religion or belief, such as on
religious education, authorized places for worship and the production,
import and distribution of religious materials"

- "still prohibits the ban of missionary activities"

- "does not provide for strong guarantees of the autonomy for religious
organizations and continues to subject fundamental elements of the freedom
to manifest religion or belief to some forms or state control or state
authorization, such as the organization of events or the participation in
pilgrimages outside the country"

- and "the grounds that may justify the suspension or dissolution of a
religious organization are vague and broad, and give too wide a discretion
to public authorities, without providing an effective remedy."

Numerous other problems are identified by the Joint Opinion, which states
that "the Draft Law should be substantially revised in order to ensure its
full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human
dimension commitments."

The many recommendations the Joint Opinion makes include:

- "remove the definition of "illegal religious activity" and expressly
state that religious or belief

groups may exist and carry out their activities without registration";

- "remove the prohibition of "engaging in religious educational activities
in private";

- remove the state censorship requirement "prior to producing, importing
and distributing

religious or belief materials";

- "to more strictly circumscribe and specify the grounds for refusal to
register a religious or

belief organization in compliance with the limitation grounds permissible
under Article 18 of

the ICCPR [International Covenant of Civil and Political Rightsh
states that: "Given the potential impact of the Draft Law on the exercise
of the right to freedom of religion or belief, it is essential that the
development of legislation in this field be preceded by an in-depth
regulatory impact assessment, including on human rights compliance,
completed with a proper problem analysis using evidence-based techniques to
identify the most efficient and effective regulatory option."

"I totally agree with all of it"

The Joint Opinion has been welcomed by human rights defenders and others.
"I totally agree with all of it", a human rights defender who wished to
remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 on 13 October.
"The Religion Law must change significantly, and I do not see this change
in the draft Law."

The human rights defender particularly highlighted four issues identified
by the Joint Opinion:

- the use by the authorities of state registration as an instrument of
pressure against religious and belief communities. The human rights
defender noted for example pressure against Shia Muslims and refusals to
register Shia mosques

- the ban on private teaching of religion to children by anyone other than
parents;

- the new compulsory requirement to notify the Religious Affairs Committee
of events and participants;

- and the many broad and unclear definition of such concepts as
‘religious extremism', ‘actions aimed at insulting the feelings of
religious believers', etc., which facilitates arbitrary interpretation by
the authorities and courts leading to punishments for people exercising
their freedom of religion and belief.

"If the authorities wanted real freedom for the people .."

A Muslim who asked to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told
Forum 18 on 14 October that: "We need to understand that the draft Religion
Law is only an advertisement for Uzbekistan aimed at international
organisations and foreign states."

"If the authorities wanted real freedom for the people, then the draft Law
would have been very different from what it actually is", the Muslim
observed. "This Law and others consequently end up as just pieces of paper.
Who needs them?"

The Muslim drew attention to the regime's current violations of freedom of
religion and belief, noting that "there is active suppression of Islam
among young people".  They noted that from 2109 onwards "many young and
active imams with a good reputation among young people were replaced by
older imams known as close collaborators with the authorities. This has the effect
that "young people have no respect for them, do not listen to them, and
instead look for information about Islam on the internet. This can
sometimes mislead these youths into becoming vulnerable to extremist
organisations."

The regime is using police informers to frame people looking for
information about Islam and discussing their faith online, using false
evidence of involvement in terrorism to jail people. In some cases those
framed by police have also been tortured, and against
international human rights law the officials involved have not been
arrested and put on criminal trial for torture.

A Protestant who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals
told Forum 18 that the draft Law is "not much different from the current
Law. We do not understand why a new Religion Law is needed if the current
Law is not going to be improved in any of its essential points."

Member of UN Human Rights Council, yet ignores human rights obligations

Uzbekistan was on 13 October elected to the United Nations Human Rights
Council,
which oversees the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of member states'
implementation of their legally-binding human rights obligations.

The Venice Commission OSCE ODIHR Joint Opinion is the latest opinion to
identify successive failures on the part of the regime to implement its
binding international human rights obligations, or act on recommendations
to do this. In September 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion
or Belief Shaheed (CCPR/C/UZB/CO/5) recommended that: "A new law on
freedom of religion or belief should be fully compatible with article 18 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights".

Yet the current and
the draft new Religion Law, as well as numerous other laws, contradict
Uzbekistan's international obligations as well as recommendations it
accepted during its last UPR in 2018.

Among UPR recommendations Uzbekistan claimed to accept but has not
implemented in the draft Religion Law or earlier were two from Ghana:
"Ensure that the right to manifest one's religion in private or in public
is fully protected and realized"; and "Consider removing burdensome and
oppressive registration requirements, and rescind intrusive government
practices, including monitoring and raiding, which infringe on the right to
freedom of religion or belief".

Uzbekistan also claimed to accept but has not implemented in the draft
Religion Law or earlier a recommendation from Canada: "Revise provisions in
the country's criminal and administrative codes relating to freedom of
religion or belief, so as to conform with article 18 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights".

Similarly, among the May 2020 Concluding Observations of the UN Human
Rights Committee (CCPR/C/UZB/CO/5), the
Committee stated that Uzbekistan should: "Guarantee the freedom of religion
and belief and refrain from any action that may restrict such freedoms
beyond the narrow restrictions permitted in article 18 of the Covenant [on
Civil and Political Rights. He claimed
to the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2020 that the new Religion Law
"would reflect the standards enshrined in the Covenant [International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The National Human Rights Centre is not accredited with the Global Alliance
for National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), which rules on whether
such institutions meet the requirements of competence, independence from
governments, and adequate powers of investigation set out in the Paris
Principles.

Officials at the Presidential Administration on 16 October also refused to
explain to Forum 18 why the prepared text was incompatible with
international human rights standards and was sent for review in that
knowledge. An official who refused to give her name in President Shavkat
Mirziyoyev's Press Service kept repeating to Forum 18 that she "cannot hear
well" when the phone line was quite clear. She then put the phone down and
did not answer subsequent calls.

The Religious Affairs Committee also refused to explain to Forum 18 why the
prepared text was incompatible with international human rights standards
and was sent for review in that knowledge. An official who refused to give
her name who answered the phone of Religious Affairs Committee Chair and
State Security Service (SSS) secret police Colonel Abdugafur Akhmedov claimed he is "on a
business trip". When asked which of the Colonel's deputies Forum 18 could
speak to, she claimed that "all his deputies are with him on a business
trip". The Committee's Chief Specialist Begzod Kadyov also refused to
explain to Forum 18 why the prepared text was incompatible with
international human rights standards and was sent for review in that
knowledge.

"Why we were recognised and honoured by being elected to the UN Human
Rights Committee"

No Oliy Majlis deputy or official was willing to explain to Forum 18 why
the prepared text was incompatible with international human rights
standards and was sent for review in that knowledge.

Numerous calls between 15 and 16 October to deputies and officials were
either not answered or met with refusals to answer questions. Among the
refusals Atamurat Kabulov, assistant to Batir Matmuratov, Chair of the
Senate Judiciary and Anti-Corruption Committee, claimed it was a "wrong
number" as soon as Forum 18 asked about the draft Religion Law.

Afzal Artykov, Head of the International Relations Section of the Senate,
the upper chamber of Parliament, told Forum 18 that he does not know when
the draft Law will reach the upper chamber.

Forum 18 asked why the Oliy Majlis failed to implement legally binding
human rights obligations, and the specific implementation recommendations
made in 2017 by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Shaheed, in 2018 during the UN Universal Periodic Review Process, in May
2020 by the UN Human Rights Committee, and by human rights defenders and
others in Uzbekistan. Artykov replied by claiming that "88 per cent of the
population are Uzbeks. We need to take into account their wishes and
desires first of all, and our historical context and the national
mentality."

Artykov then quickly added that "of course, we are also taking into account
the international recommendations, which is why we were recognised and
honoured by being elected to the UN Nations Human Rights Council".
He then claimed that "we will slowly take into account the other
recommendations".

Artykov did not explain why his claim to "take into account" the alleged
"wishes and desires" of some of the population led to ignoring human rights
defenders and members of religious and belief communities, as well as not
holding free and fair elections.

When Forum 18 asked why the Oliy Majlis passed the draft Religion Law on
its first reading despite it being incompatible with human rights standards, Artykov claimed, "I
am not a specialist in this area, and not familiar with the text, but I can
say that the Parliament will do the best in the interests of Uzbekistan."
He then refused to discuss the issue further.

What changes do people in Uzbekistan want?

People in Uzbekistan have repeatedly criticised restrictions on the
exercise of freedom of religion or belief in the current Religion Law. Members of religious
communities and human rights defenders have expressed their frustration to Forum 18 about the
secrecy of the new Religion Law's drafting process, and the regime's
apparent lack of willingness to end restrictions violating human rights
obligations.

For example, as Yelena Urlayeva who chairs the Human Rights Alliance has
noted, the Religious
Affairs Committee still interferes in the activity of religious
communities, including by censoring what Muslims can and cannot read

Amongst the many changes the people the regime rules would like to see in a
new Religion Law are:

- an end to compulsory state registration as a requirement for religious
communities to exist
and the intrusive controls it brings, in line with the regime's
international human rights obligations;

- an end to the requirement for communities allowed to exist to give
advance notice of meetings and the participants and topics discussed;

- an end to the ban on Muslim women wearing the hijab or other religious
head scarf;

- an end to the ban on Muslim men wearing beards at work place or places of
education;

- an end to the ban on teaching religion privately, an end to the ban on
private teaching of Islam to children or opening new madrassahs [religious
schools;

- an end to the ban on praying with others outside state-registered places
of worship in private homes.

Human rights defender Shukhrat Ganiyev from Bukhara told Forum 18 on 5 June
that "we have noticed a temporary reinforcement of the control over the
exercise of freedom of religion and belief. For example, the
government still seriously limits the freedom of expression of one's own
religious beliefs and public criticism of government religious policies".

Ganiyev also noted that both people in Uzbekistan and international
organisations have strongly criticised the use of "vague concepts of
'extremism', 'anti-constitutional acts', and 'participation in banned
religious groups' to punish Muslims".

"Civil society is expecting systemic changes in human rights from the
government. Only this and real reforms can guarantee no return to the
repressive past," Ganiyev commented.

"The state must not be afraid of giving full freedom of religion and
belief," insisted human rights defender Abduvohid Yakubov from Tashkent. "These
are natural rights of each citizen from birth," Yakubov told Forum 18. "The
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights talk about this clearly. As the United Nations
Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, stated
during his visit to Uzbekistan in 2017, unlawful limitations on freedom of
religion and belief must be banned."

Following his October 2017 visit to Uzbekistan, Special Rapporteur Shaheed
recommended (A/HRC/37/49/Add.2)
that: "A new law on freedom of religion or belief should be fully
compatible with article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights", as well as that "The new draft law should be open to
consultations and comments by the public, especially civil society,
religious and belief communities and international partners, including the
United Nations system".

On 15 September Uzbekistan's parliament, which has never faced free and
fair elections, passed the
draft Religion Law on its first reading, yet without genuine public
discussion. The Venice
Commission has published its own 9 September English translation of the
draft Law.

"Not much different from the current Religion Law"

Independent Muslim blogger Dr Alimardon Sultonov told Forum 18 "even the
so-called improvements are not a solution". Similarly,
Protestants who wish to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals have
told Forum 18 that "the draft Religion Law is not much different from the
current Religion Law".

Deputy Shukhrat Bafayev, Head of the lower chamber's Committee on
Democratic Institutions, Non-Governmental Organisations and Citizens'
Self-Government Bodies, refused to explain to Forum 18 why the first
reading of the draft Law was passed before the Oliy Majlis has received an
expert opinion by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Office of
Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

Deputy Bafayev also refused to explain why the draft ignores UPR
recommendations and UN Special Rapporteur recommendations. He claimed
however that "we are still ready to accept their opinion"

On 25 September the regime invited only religious communities with state
permission to exist to a meeting to discuss the draft Religion Law. No
members of religious communities without state permission to exist were
invited. A member of a
registered community which participated in the 25 September meeting told
Forum 18 that those present raised concerns with the authorities over
several key points of the draft Law. These included continuing the current
compulsory registration of communities to exist with a membership threshold
which particularly affects small communities, censorship and other
restrictions on religious literature and its import into Uzbekistan, as
well as literature production and distribution in the country under the
strict control of the Religious Affairs Committee, and the ban on
missionary activity.

"All religious communities wish to share their faith with others, but this
very easily can be evaluated as banned missionary activity," the community
member told Forum 18 on 30 September. "And one of the ways to share one's
faith is through religious literature, which also is under strict state
control."

Akmalkhan Shakirov, Head of the state-controlled Muftiate's International
Relations Department, refused to say on 30 September why the regime did not
consult Muslims who do not work for the Muftiate.

"When the bill was submitted for public discussion, more than 500 proposals
were received from individuals, educational and religious institutions, and
representatives of various religious organisations," the parliament website
claimed. "Most of them approved the amendments to the new version of the
bill." (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Uzbekistan.

For more background, see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey.

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments

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