Uzbekistan: More Muslims Jailed, Tortured, Arrested

Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18


Fazilkhoja Arifkhojayev, © Private [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]


A Tashkent court jailed Muslim prisoner of conscience Fazilkhoja Arifkhojayev for seven and half years in a labour camp for criticising state-appointed imams. He was repeatedly tortured, including after his defence lawyer Sergey Mayorov lodged formal complaints about the torture. The judge ignored his torture. "The torturers continue with impunity," Mayorov observed. The Supreme Court upheld in absentia Odilbek Khojabekov's five year labour camp sentence for returning from the haj pilgrimage with Islamic literature, and he is now in hiding. The National Guard has arrested Alimardon Sultonov for criticising the President and state-appointed imams.


On 26 January, a Tashkent court jailed Muslim prisoner of conscience Fazilkhoja Arifkhojayev for seven and half years in a labour camp. Human rights defender Yelena Urlayeva, who chairs the Human Rights Alliance, told Forum 18 that on 25 January she and other human rights defenders were not allowed into the courtroom. She thinks that the Judge did not want human rights defenders to witness a hearing based on falsified charges. On 26 June 2021 Arifkhojayev, a Muslim known for his criticisms on social media of the regime's religious policies, attended a Tashkent Mosque to hear visiting preacher Abror Abduazimov preach and lead a discussion on Islamic topics. Arifkhojayev asked Abduazimov why he insulted Arifkhojayev and other Muslims on social media, and called Abduazimov a "hypocrite". He was subsequently arrested, given a 15-day jail term, and then held in pre-trial detention until his January 2022 sentence (see below). Prisoner of conscience Arifkhojayev has been repeatedly tortured, including after his defence lawyer Sergey Mayorov lodged formal complaints about the torture to the Human Rights Ombudsperson and later to Tashkent Prosecutor's Office. Against Uzbekistan's legally-binding international human rights obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, no official suspected of involvement in this torture has been arrested and put on criminal trial for torture. The judge in prisoner of conscience Arifkhojayev's ignored his torture (see below). "As of today, unfortunately, there have been no answers or indication from any of the authorities that the torturers have been put on trial or punished. The torturers continue with impunity," defence lawyer Mayorov told Forum 18 (see below). Judge Nuriddinov claimed to Forum 18 that "Arifkhojayev's statements and social media posts were extremist," when asked why he had jailed prisoner of conscience Arifkhojayev for seven and a half years in a labour camp for criticising state-appointed imams. Defence lawyer Mayorov explained to Forum 18 that "the main issue is that between 2019 and 2021 Arifkhojayev was in conflict with Abror Abduazimov." The state-appointed imam "in mosques across Uzbekistan and on social media actively defends and justifies state policies, including religious policies, using the Koran" (see below). In July 2021, a Tashkent court handed 47-year-old Odilbek Khojabekov a five year labour camp sentence in absentia to punish him for returning from the haj pilgrimage with Islamic literature. The State Security Service (SSS) secret police then pressured ordinary police, prosecutors, and others into giving what the family insists is false testimony at a second hearing which ordered him jailed. He is in hiding fearing for his safety. On 28 January 2022 the Supreme Court in Khojabekov's absence upheld the five-year prison term (see below). Doctor Alimardon Sultonov, a devout Muslim known for discussing freedom of religion and belief issues, was arrested on 18 January by the National Guard and charged under Criminal Code Article 244-1, Part 3 (d) ("Production, storage, distribution or display of materials containing a threat to public security and public order" "using the mass media or telecommunication networks, as well as the world wide web"). The arrest was "for criticising President Mirziyoyev, state-appointed imams and other officials." Since April 2021 Dr Sultanov has been under continuous and unconcealed surveillance by the regime (see below). It is very unusual for the National Guard, part of the military, to be involved in freedom of religion or belief cases, the first known such time being a November 2018 raid on Tashkent Baptists meeting for worship. A Presidential Administration official (who refused to give his name) claimed to Forum 18 that the National Guard did not arrest Sultanov "but was there to ensure public order" (see below). Interior Ministry Special Investigator Colonel Gairat (who refused to give his surname) is leading the case, and has refused to allow Dr Sultonov's parents to visit him (see below). Human rights defender Urlayeva of the Human Rights Alliance commented on the cases of prisoners of conscience Arifkhojayev and Sultonov that "these human rights defenders only want the authorities to allow Muslims freedom. They want our society be democratic. They express their opinions of how they understand Islam." She added that "imprisoning them is a clear signal from the state to society that any criticism will be severely punished" (see below). In November 2021, police detained Muslim former prisoner of conscience Khayrullo Tursunov and other Muslims, warning them not to meet to sharing a meal and praying together. Some were tortured and one later given a long jail term (see forthcoming F18 article).

Continued targeting of Muslims exercising their freedom of religion and belief

The regime has also continued to target other Muslims who exercise their freedom of religion and belief outside state control, including harassing an 18-year-old Muslim from Tashkent who wears the hijab. The family complained to the President and others without success and have themselves been targeted by the regime for complaining. Police told neighbours that the authorities do not like her and warned them not to associate with her. "Muslims are indignant that the state is attacking their beards and hijab, which is a very private matter for each individual," one Muslim who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18.


Police raided the home of Tashkent Muslim Laziz Asadov, seizing two Korans and other property after he continued to criticise the regime's religious policies. This included criticising for criticising the regime's actions against hijab wearers, including as it affected his secondary school age daughter. The search warrant claimed he is implicated in a criminal case against a man he does not know, and Asadov has fled abroad.


Journalists and editors from Azon.uz and Kun.uz were fined in June 2021 for publishing articles on religious themes without Religious Affairs Committee permission. One of the articles the Committee objected to was about the New Zealand Police adopting the hijab as part of police uniform, which Kun.uz sourced from a BBC report. The regime has told journalists that every article which the Religious Affairs Committee might be interested in must be sent to them for pre-publication "expert analysis". The regime is also targeting ordinary members of religious communities who express their views. Officials warned Shia Muslims in Bukhara and Samarkand in late June "not to publish religious materials on their social media." One human rights defender stated that "after the warning many deleted their accounts, or deleted religious materials." A human rights defender noted that "some even stopped talking to or associating with people who had been warned".


A human rights defender who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 that "the regime wants to shut people up and does not want citizens to freely exchange their thoughts or ask questions about Islam."They commented that "this will not lead anything good but will lead to extremism," noting that "we need real reforms and freedoms, including freedom of religion and belief, if we do not want extremism."

Seven and a half years in labour camp for criticising state-appointed imams

On 26 January 2022, after a two-day trial, Judge Zakhiddin Nuriddinov of Tashkent's Olmazor District Criminal Court jailed Muslim prisoner of conscience Fazilkhoja Arifkhojayev for seven and half years in a labour camp.


Arifkhojayev was jailed under Criminal Code Article 244-1, Part 3 (d) ("Production, storage, distribution or display of materials containing a threat to public security and public order" "using the mass media or telecommunication networks, as well as the world wide web"). Judge Nuriddinov ordered that Arifkhojayev's prison term be counted from 13 July 2021, when he was put under pre-trial arrest.


Human rights defender Yelena Urlayeva, who chairs the Human Rights Alliance, told Forum 18 that on 25 January she and other human rights defenders were not allowed into the courtroom. "The Court at first did not want to allow anyone inside, making an excuse of the coronavirus rules." After complaints from the family, three or four relatives were allowed in, but no human rights defenders.


"I have seen Olmazor Court's hall for hearings," human rights defender Urlayeva explained. "Ten people could easily sit there, provided we observe the social distancing." She thinks that the Judge did not want human rights defenders to witness a hearing based on falsified charges.


On 13 December 2021 prosecutors sent the case to the Court for criminal trial. Arifkhojayev's brother Jamol told Forum 18 at that time that his brother "will probably be given a prison term for crimes he did not commit".