A leading human rights organisation has accused the Uzbek government of religious persecution and the torture of thousands of Muslims.
The government, a US ally, is charged with arresting and maltreating non-violent Muslim dissidents who practice their faith outside state-controlled religion. The government justifies its actions are necessary as counterterrorism measures.
But in the 319-page report, Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the torture of detainees in a campaign that has resulted in the incarceration of an estimated 7000 Muslims.
According to the US-based HRW, the government's targets are "independent Muslims" who do not use state-run mosques and schools or who act beyond the strict controls set out by the government's laws on religion.
"The scale and brutality of the operations make it clear that these are part of a concerted and tightly orchestrated campaign of religious persecution," said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Right's Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.
The report is based on five years of research conducted throughout Uzbekistan, including interviews with some 200 victims and their relatives, as well as other eyewitnesses, human rights defenders and government officials.
HRW attended dozens of trials, gathered police and court documents pertaining to the cases of more than 800 people, and reviewed medical records, death certificates, victims' letters as well as government responses.
"The scale and brutality of the operations against independent Muslims make it clear that these are part of a concerted and tightly orchestrated campaign of religious persecution"
acting executive director, Human Right's Watch's Europe and Central Asia division
It found that the government has branded independent Muslims as "extremists" or "Wahhabis" – a perjorative term used to suggest people are extremists and not a reference to actual followers of the doctrine of Wahhabism, as practiced predominantly in Saudi Arabia.
Those targeted include people whom the state deems "too pious" including those who wear a beard, interpreted as "a sign of piety".
These Muslims, the report says, are imprisoned on charges of "subversion, encroachment on the constitutional order" or "anti-state activities".
HRW says such persons are tried in "grossly unfair proceedings" and receive prison sentences of up to 20 years.
Blasts in Uzbekistan have been
blamed on Muslim groups
The report refutes the Uzbek government's frequent claim that the arrest of non-violent Muslim dissidents is necessary to counter terrorism.
The government blamed a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for a series of bomb attacks that took place in Tashkent in February 1999.
However, HRW found that the people whose cases are featured in the report were not charged with involvement in these bombings or accused of membership of the group, but were instead imprisoned for their "peaceful religious beliefs and practices".
More than half of the government's targets have been members of the Hizbut Tahrir, a group that advocates peacefully setting up an Islamic state. HRW found that participants in the group's study circles and those who disseminate or even possess the group's literature are sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Torture is rampant in Uzbekistan, but police mete out particularly harsh treatment to religious detainees to compel confessions or other testimony, says the report. It documents deaths from torture over a five-year period. Methods include beatings, electric shock, asphyxiation, suspension from the wrists or ankles, rape and burning with cigarettes or lit newspaper.
"Torture methods meted out included beatings, electric shock, asphyxiation, suspension from the wrists or ankles, rape and burning with cigarettes or lit newspaper"
Human Rights Watch report
The abuse "continues as religious prisoners serve out their sentences in squalid prison conditions". Prison guards beat and rape them and they are placed in solitary confinement as punishment for prayer or other religious observance.
In February, a 62-year-old woman, Fatima Mukhadirova, was convicted on charges of "religious extremism" after she had spoken out on the torture and death of her son while in custody.
Her son, imprisoned on the same charges, died in August 2002 after he was apparently submerged in boiling water. Mukhadirova was released following an international outcry.
But arrests continue unabated, says the report, and at least 26 Muslims have been imprisoned since January.
On 14 March, a 44-year old Muslim prisoner, Abd al-Rahman Narzullaev died in custody under "suspicious circumstances after participating in a hunger strike".
"Uzbekistan", says Denber, "is a close ally of the US and other powerful Western states, but it cannot hide behind the global war on terrorism to justify religious repression."
HRW has called on Uzbekistan's allies, including EU countries, to denounce the former Soviet state's persecution of Muslims and demand a halt to mass arrests and torture.
The White House is to rule on
Uzbekistan's human rights record
"It is shameful that the international community has stood by and allowed this campaign to continue," adds Denber. "If Uzbekistan's allies want the world to believe that they are against the persecution of Muslim dissidents, they are going to have to take some action to show where they stand."
In April, the White House is expected to decide whether to certify that Uzbekistan has made "the substantial and continuing progress" on human rights necessary to release some $50 million in aid, including military assistance to the Central Asian country.