Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Highlights Religious Freedom Violations in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan

The co-chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission shed more light on the severe religious freedom violations in the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and urged the United States to add the two countries to the list of Country of Particular Concern.

At a briefing on religious freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan yesterday, the Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, gave examples of religious intolerance in the two nations ruled by authoritarian presidents.

The representative told the audience that the Uzbekistan government represses religion by using the criminal code and a highly restrictive Law on Religion to criminalize unregistered religious activities while at the same time refusing to register religious groups. Groups that try to seek legal status are punished by police raids, criminal penalties and other measure.

“Throughout an entire region of the country, all non-Orthodox Christian religious activity is prohibited, putting in jeopardy members of several Protestant/evangelical congregations present there,” Smith said.

Similarly, in Turkmenistan, the representatives said that although the country has made small steps in progress – registering a few groups and allowing them to meet – on the whole there have been no significant improvements.

“Security officials continue to harass both registered and unregistered religious groups with sporadic raids, imprisonments, fines, threats and other forms of official pressure,” Smith said.

He urged both the Turkmen government and Uzbek officials to amend religious laws and criminal code to allow religious groups to function without government harassment, make arrangements for the groups to be registered, and release religious prisoners.

The Commission co-chairman concluded, “The United States cannot afford to ignore the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations’ of religious freedom perpetrated by the Karimov and Niyazov regimes.

“I believe Uzbekistan meets the criteria outlined in International Religious Freedom Act as a ‘particular severe’ violator of religious freedom and should be designated a ‘Country of Particular Concern,’” he said.

Smith also urged the president to reconsider designating Turkmenistan as a CPC.

As an independent agency of the United States government, the United States Helsinki Commission is charged with monitoring and encouraging compliance with the Helsinki Final Act – “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion” - and other commitments of the 55 countries participating in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).