Uzbekistan has further curtailed freedoms of speech and religion by establishing a legal basis for the long-established de facto severe state restrictions on religion-related literature, films, recordings, websites and other materials, Forum 18 News Service notes. A new Decree, which came into force on 27 January, imposes sweeping controls on the production, distribution and import of all such materials. It bans their distribution anywhere apart from in fixed commercial points of sale equipped with cash registers. Such materials, including those for personal use, cannot be imported without prior state permission.
The Decree also bans the production, storage or distribution of religious materials intended to encourage people to change their faith or beliefs. It also bans works which, in the state's interpretation, "distort" religious canons.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the Prime Minister, signed the Cabinet of Ministers Decree entitled "Measures to improve order in the production, import and distribution of religious materials" on 20 January. It came into force on its official publication on 27 January.
The Decree gives the State Religious Affairs Committee "together with interested ministries and agencies" one month to prepare changes to other Laws to enforce provisions of the Decree. Supervision of implementation of the Decree was assigned to Deputy Prime Minister Adkham Ikramov, who covers cultural issues.
The Decree – which formalises the implementation of provisions in the 1998 Religion Law - tightens the already severe censorship regime.
Not just imported materials
When the government ordered the preparation of a new Decree in July 2013, it was originally aimed at censorship of religious materials produced abroad and imported into Uzbekistan.
However, the January 2014 Decree codifies the state censorship of all religious materials in Uzbekistan, wherever they are produced.
Officials from Prime Minster Mirziyoyev's office as well as from the State Committee refused to discuss the Decree with Forum 18 on 12 February.
The office of Deputy Prime Minister Ikramov referred Forum 18 to one of its officials, Arifkhon Zakirov. Asked for comments on the new Decree and asked what or when changes to other Laws will be introduced, Zakirov asked Forum 18 to call back in half hour since "I am in a meeting". Called back later, his phone went unanswered.
Officials at the State Committee, including the Chair Artykbek Yusupov (through his Assistant) and Begzod Kadyrov, refused to talk to Forum 18 and told it to send questions in writing.
Decree on printed, electronic and audio-visual religious materials
The Decree has two main Appendices: the first specifies controls over the production, distribution in and import into Uzbekistan of religious materials, while the second covers the process of the compulsory religious "expert analysis" of such materials by the State Religious Affairs Committee "experts".
The Decree has two other Appendices. One depicts the hologram with the name of the State Committee which must be placed on religious materials that have successfully passed the State Committee censorship. The other has a schematic table of the State Committee's religious "expert analysis" procedure.
Point 16 of the second Appendix on the compulsory "expert analyses" requires the State Committee no less than twice a year to submit to the relevant state organs a list of materials whose production, distribution or import into Uzbekistan is banned.
Meddling in religious communities' internal affairs?
An independent legal expert from Tashkent, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of state reprisals, complained to Forum 18 that the Decree further increases state controls over the use of religious literature. The Decree "has contradictions and ambiguities", the expert complained, and "gives broad powers to the State Religious Affairs Committee to seriously limit the use or distribution of religious literature".
Although the Decree ostensibly only concerns religious materials, it appears to make it possible for the State Committee and other state organs to directly interfere in the internal affairs of registered religious organisations. The Decree gives the State Committee the right to conduct "unwarranted meddling in the internal affairs of officially registered religious communities", the expert complained.
Unregistered religious activity was banned in Uzbekistan under the harsh 1998 Religion Law, with punishments for those who meet with others without state registration.
Point 11 of the second Appendix gives the State Committee the right to inquire and receive from other state organs, civil and religious organisations information to investigate religious communities "on questions within its purview". Point 12 gives the State Committee the right to visit religious and social organisations.
Further punishments to follow?
Point 20 declares: "Persons responsible for violating the provisions of the Decree shall be responsible in the established order."
The Code of Administrative Offences Article 184-2 already punishes: "Illegal production, storage, or import into Uzbekistan, with the intent to distribute or actual distribution, of religious materials by physical persons". Punishments are a fine of up to 150 times the minimum monthly wage, "with confiscation of the religious materials and the relevant means of their production and distribution". Criminal Code Article 244-3 punishes "illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious literature". It carries – if there has been a previous administrative conviction - a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment.
Presumably further punishments will be introduced to the Administrative Code and possible also to the Criminal Code to enforce the new Decree.
Obstacles to free production, distribution and import of religious materials
Points 8, 12 and 17 seem set to create a major obstacle for the free use of religious materials since a prior consent of the State Committee is demanded in the Decree for production, import and distribution of them.
Point 8 declares: "Production of materials in Uzbekistan is allowed only after a [positive] expert opinion is given on them within ten working days."
Point 12 declares: "The State Committee in no more than 10 working days from the date when it received an advance copy of a religious material, shall present its expert opinion for a further decision on the import of the material into Uzbekistan."
Point 17 declares: "Religious materials can be distributed in Uzbekistan when a positive State religious expert opinion is given for a specific item."
In August 2011, Uzbekistan's Bible Society was finally allowed to bring through Customs 2,800 Russian-language Bibles which had been confiscated in 2010. It was forced to re-export a larger number of other Bibles confiscated both then and in 2008.
Other obstacles to free distribution of religious materials
According to Point 14: "Distribution of materials in Uzbekistan is carried out by legal or physical persons at fixed sales points with electronic cash registers or payment terminals, provided all income from sales must be banked on a daily basis. Sales or distribution of materials at non-commercial sales points is banned."
This appears to prohibit religious communities from giving out religious literature to its members and non-members outside their legal addresses. However, it is not clear whether or not they will be able to do so inside.
The Tashkent legal expert indicated to Forum 18 that even at fixed sales points, the authorities are likely to create obstacles. "This will allow the tax authorities to fully control distribution or sales of religious materials. They will at first force religious communities or believers to buy cash registers, and later will systematically carry out control of their [cash register's] serviceability," as well as "control of procurement of religious materials."
Point 3 requires those intending to distribute religious materials to receive prior State Committee consent to the number of copies to be produced or imported. Sales data collected by the tax authorities will make it possible for the authorities to punish those exceeding the quotas given to them.
In addition to requiring religious materials to have undergone the State Committee censorship, Point 3 requires products to be marked with "the full name and contents of a religious material, names of the author and producer, date and place of production, number of copies and other information in the State language". Thus it seems that the State Committee may object to the number of copies, for instance, if it wishes so.
It is also not clear what will happen to the distribution of the Bible or any other widely accepted religious books, containing calls to people to receive the faith the proponent of which they are. Because according to Point18 of Chapter 4, materials intended to encourage people to change one's faith or religious beliefs cannot be distributed.
Another ambiguous issue in the same provision is that "materials containing information inciting religious enmity, insulting or humiliation of religious feelings of believers cannot be distributed".
Countrywide control of religious information
According to Point 15, libraries across Uzbekistan whether state or non-state, including the Alisher Navoi National Library in Tashkent, as well as information resource centres, are "banned from receiving religious materials from foreign producers without a positive prior expert analysis from the State Religious Affairs Committee".
Point 16 specifies that the "State Committee and other relevant organisations shall carry out joint actions to detect and prevent illegal distribution of materials."
How can advance copies of religious literature be produced?
Point 6 demands that "an advance copy and all necessary information for the production of a religious material must be presented to the State Committee before its production for its religious expertise."
It is not clear how the advance copy of an item of literature – to be presented to the Religious Affairs Committee for endorsement – will be produced in Uzbekistan since the production of any literature without the Committee's authorisation is banned under the current Decree, and nothing is said on the production of advance copies.
"It is possible for the publisher or producer to be punished by the authorities for the production of an advance copy, especially if the Committee then bans it," the Tashkent legal expert pointed out to Forum 18.
The expert also indicated to Forum 18 that Point 7 is contradictory since "the State Committee puts limitation on the number of copies of a piece of literature the Religious Communities may receive or produce," but the provision states that "Materials produced by legal or physical persons after prior expertise shall have information on the author and name of the material, address of the producer, number of copies, short content or interpretation as well as the date of production."
The legal expert explained that "the person ordering the production of religious literature cannot independently decide how many copies should be produced since they must first ask the Religious Affairs Committee."
The legal expert also indicated that the Decree does "not specify where exactly DVD and CD disks may be produced or more specifically if they may be produced by private persons who do not have a legal address of a publisher."
Import of materials into Uzbekistan problematic
Customs authorities' frequent confiscation of all religious literature – whether for personal or community use – appears to have been legalised by this Decree. Among many such seizures was the confiscation of about 30 religious books in May 2013 from four individuals returning from neighbouring Kazakhstan.
Point 9 "religious materials entering Uzbekistan seized by the State Customs officials shall be in timely manner sent to Religious Affairs Committee for expert analysis," and according to Point 12, religious materials intended to be imported into Uzbekistan must receive prior expert opinion of the Committee.
Point 11 seems set to make the import of personal religious books difficult, even if they are not banned. It states that "import into Uzbekistan of materials by physical or legal persons for personal use no more than three copies of each title, shall be allowed after their expert analysis." More than three copies will not be allowed for personal use, and it is not clear whether it will be allowed to bring in Uzbekistan an edition of a book, which consists of 4 or more volumes or a data carrier with records of more than three samples of a piece of literature.
Courts routinely order that confiscated Muslim, Christian, Jehovah's Witness or other religious materials - including items which are not banned such as the Bible or Koran - be destroyed. In January a Tashkent Judge who fined an individual also ordered the destruction of 593 leaflets and 119 Christian books, booklets, magazines, and notebooks with personal notes. The books had been bought from the Bible Society.
Point 10 declares: "All banned materials, after their expertise shall be confiscated by the State Customs or other State border organs,"
Point 13 seems that the authorities will specifically tighten the control of Muslim religious materials when haj or umra pilgrims return to Uzbekistan from Mecca. It says that "the Religious Affairs Committee and State Customs officials will jointly carry out control of religious materials during mass events of pilgrimage for the purpose of protecting the interests of Uzbekistan's citizens."
Also the Tashkent expert pointed out to Forum 18 that it is "not clear what the authorities will do when items considered as sacred objects by Catholics or the Russian Orthodox will be brought into Uzbekistan, since the Decree says nothing about them."
Point 3 of the second Appendix covering the "expert analyses" by the State Committee gives a broad definition of religious materials requiring "expert analysis": "books, magazines, newspapers, leaflets and other printed matter, audio-visual productions (such as TV, cinema and video films, music videos, records of concerts, cartoons, and etc.), electronic carriers of information (diskettes, CD and DVD discs, materials placed on the internet and other sources), which reflect on the foundation, history, ideology, teachings and commentaries as well as the practice of rituals of various religions of the world".
However, it does not specify whether or not religious attributes such as Kuran suras (verses), crescents, crosses and icons are religious materials subject to prior compulsory censorship. It is also not clear whether or why Uzbekistan citizens will be responsible for religious materials placed on the internet.
"Distortions" and "deviations" banned
Point 3 establishes that the State Religious Affairs Committee carries out theological study of religious materials with participation of specialists, experts and representatives of religious organisations. The Committee produces a written opinion on whether or not the materials "contain deviation from or distortion of religious canons, which is necessary for permission of the production, import or distribution of those materials".
It remains unclear why publications which contain theological views at variance from those the State Committee regards as "religious canons" should be banned.
According to Point 6, the Religious Affairs Committee "may establish an expert Council of scholars, experts and specialists in the area of religious studies or theology."
"It claims that an expert Council may be established, but it also may not be established," the Tashkent legal expert stated to Forum 18. "Besides it does not say anything on whether representatives of religious Communities will be included in this Council." The expert complained that this is a contradiction between Points 3 and 6.
Can individuals publish religious materials?
According to Point 8, legal or physical persons for production, import or distribution of materials must present to the Religious Affairs Committee copies of a registration certificate and charter, as well as a document confirming ownership of a publishing house, printing press or other production facility.
"This is nonsense: a physical person does not have such documents by definition, so how can a physical person present them?" the Tashkent expert told Forum 18.