Uzbekistan’s repression survivors tell their harrowing stories in a new documentary

A photo of Habibullo, who survived repressions and spent 21 years in prison. Screenshot fro the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs YouTube channel. Fair use.

A documentary focusing on the stories of repression survivors in Uzbekistan called “Oqlanmagan – The Unexonerated” was posted on YouTube on January 26 by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. The 27-minute-long documentary tells the stories of people who were subjected to religious repressions during the reign of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, who ruled from 1991 until his death in 2016. This is one of the first attempts to tell the story of more than 18,000 people who were jailed on trumped-up charges and labeled “extremists” by the Karimov government.

Here is the documentary film “Oqlanmagan — the Unexonorated.”

The repressions started soon after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, by which Uzbekistan had seen various local movements aiming to revive its national and religious identity after almost 70 years of Soviet atheist rule. Karimov saw these pro-democracy and religious groups as a threat to his rule. Political repressions commenced in the early 1990s with the ban of the two opposition political parties, Erk (Will) and Birlik (Unity), and the arrest of thousands of journalists and human rights activists.

Azamjon Farmanov, featured in the film, spent 11.5 years in prison for his work as a human rights activist. He was a member of the Society of Human Rights in Uzbekistan and headed its brancn in the central Sirdaryo region. Like the rest of the political and religious prisoners, Farmanov served his sentence in the Jaslyk prison, which he describes as “the cruelest and most violent of all prisons” due to widespread use of torture and other forms of inhumane treatment.

Here is a YouTube video about the Jaslyk prison.

Religious repression started after Karimov’s infamous meeting with the religious groups in the eastern city of Namangan in 1991, during which he was humiliated by the jostling crowd that demanded that the local building of the Communist Party be turned into a mosque and Uzbekistan become an Islamic State. Immediately after the meeting, more than 70 people were arrested.

By the early 1990s, Namangan and other major cities of the Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan had become the center of religious revival, with local religious groups advocating for a greater role of religion in everyday life. One such group called Adolat (Justice) eventually turned into the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a homegrown terrorist organization.

Religious repression peaked in 1998 and onward. That year, the IMU announced its establishment and declared its goal of toppling the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan. In response, Uzbekistan adopted the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and introduced Article 159 (attempt to overthrow the constitutional order) to the Criminal Code, two legal tools that were used extensively against tens of thousands of citizens in their prosecution.

Habibullo, featured in the film, spent more than 21 years in prison after being convicted of being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a non-violent Islamic political organization that is banned in Uzbekistan. He shares that he was subjected to torture by the police for six days to force him to confess. During Karimov’s crackdown, Uzbekistan’s conviction rates and rates of prosecution based solely on confession were among the highest in the world. Habibullo notes meeting prisoners convicted of extremism, who had never prayed once in their lives but confessed under torture.

The scale of repression was partially revealed after Uzbekistan’s current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, came to power in 2016. Since 2017, over 18,000 Muslims convicted of extremism have had their sentences commuted or were removed from the so-called blacklist containing names of those who were convicted of extremism. However, none has been exonerated by the authorities, highlighting the continued injustice.

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