Since September 11, 2001 all five Central Asian countries have enacted legislation restricting religious freedoms in an attempt to curb the rise of radical Islamic terrorism. The new laws have had a damaging effect on the free practice of religion. In 2004, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, stated that freedom of religion “is a fundamental right that is not susceptible to derogation, even in time of emergency. “Despite a legitimate interest in promoting national security, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan also maintain a set of obligations to protect this basic right as States Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The threat of terrorism in Central Asia is well-founded. In 1999 and 2004 a series of bombings killed dozens in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. Immediately after the September 11 attacks in the United States, Tajikistan initiated a ban on certain groups, including Hizbut-Tahir, al-Qaeda, Bay-at, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Harakati Tablighot. In 2006, Kyrgyzstan labeled extremist group Hizbut-Tahrir as the largest religious challenge in the country. Kazakhstan has eliminated 42 extremist groups and prevented 35 terrorist attacks since 2010 alone. However, many of the new Religion Laws have broad applications that affect religious activities with no relation to terrorism.
Kyrgyzstan’s Administrative Code and Turkmenistan’s Religious Organization Law require any religious organization operating within the state to register with the government. Kyrgyzstan also bans prayers and religious rituals not approved by the state. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have made creating, promoting, and distributing religious materials an offense subject to criminal penalties or high fines. The Administrative Code of Kyrgyzstan and the Criminal Code of Tajikistan make it an offense to participate in a religious organization that contradicts the aims of the state. And Tajikistan’s new Religion Law requires children to receive all religious education from state-licensed institutions. As previously reported in the Human Rights Brief, the Tajik government also enacted a Parental Responsibility Law that requires parents to prevent children from participating in religious activities that are not sanctioned by the state.
The effects of these laws have been present throughout Central Asia. According to a Human Rights Watch report, hundreds of religious organizations were forced to close in 2012 after failing to receive official registration from the Kazakh government. In the Kostanai Region of Kazakhstan, which has a population of 900,300, only two bookshops are allowed to sell religious materials. The report also indicated that during the same timeframe, over 200 people in Uzbekistan were arrested or convicted for religious extremism. At the beginning of the year, 1,823 Tajiks began their studies in foreign religious institutions; 1,621 were required to return to Tajikistan. The government of Kyrgyzstan is currently holding 83 religious extremists in detention facilities, amid fears that prisons have become breeding grounds for terror recruitment.
Because every country in Central Asia is a party to the ICCPR, each has an obligation to promote the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as outlined in Article 18. The rights include the “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” The Central Asian countries claim they have not impinged upon these rights because Article 18 also allows for “such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The General Assembly has affirmed that the Central Asian countries have read this exception for national security too broadly. In Resolution 66/168, the General Assembly expressed concern with the growing number of restrictive laws and intolerance motivated by Islamophobia. The Special Rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief then affirmed that “states should avoid equating certain religions with terrorism as this may have adverse consequences on the right to freedom of religion or belief of all members of the concerned religious communities or communities of belief.” Despite the sentiments by the General Assembly and Special Rapporteur, the Central Asian laws restricting the practice of religion have not been amended or repealed.
While the Central Asian countries may believe that the restrictions on religion are justified in the face of rising threats of terrorism, the ICCPR obliges member states to respect religion as a fundamental right. If the application of the Religion Laws continues to create a substantial burden on those not associated with terrorist activities, the United Nations, although it has not articulated further steps, could begin to place more pressure on the Central Asian governments.