Almost 13,000 Muslims in Uzbekistan have been jailed since 2002 on charges of "religious extremism" as the Tashkent government continues its crackdown on worshippers who attend services in non-approved mosques.
In a report released by the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders on Thursday, 300 of the 12,800 cases were recorded in 2015 alone.
The majority of those convicted experienced cases of abuse and torture, the report said, while mentioning that prison sentences were prolonged for even the slightest forms of misbehaviour.
Although most convicts were alleged members of banned organisations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut Tahrir and DAESH, the report claims that human rights defenders, independent journalists and activists were among those who had been imprisoned.
Not only are the suspects convicted, but their sentencing is often followed by the conviction of their family members, neighbours, friends and business partners, the report stated.
The report says that many of those convicted were arrested upon return to the central Asian country after spending time abroad, but a number of rights groups also say that suspects are kidnapped by Uzbek agents abroad and brought back to Uzbekistan to face charges, even if they have claimed asylum or even cancelled their citizenship.
Most recently, Uzbek authorities even put Aramais Avakian, an ethnic Armenian Christian on trial on Wednesday for allegedly having links to DAESH terrorist organisation, but Avakian’s family has accused the local governor of trumping up charges in an attempt to take over his fish farm.
Authorities in Tashkent began a massive crackdown on Muslims in the country in the late 1990s after President Islam Karimov, a 77-year-old former communist official who has led the country since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, was targeted in an alleged assassination attempt.
In spite of 70 years of Soviet communism, during which Islam was heavily suppressed in Uzbekistan, Uzbeks still maintain strong Muslim traditions and values, which Karimov has been working to eradicate in his 25-year rule.
In 2005, Uzbek forces opened fire on thousands of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds. The massacre was quickly condemned by the West, but Karimov responded by closing down a key US airbase in the country and reviving Uzbekistan’s its ties with Russia.
However, US-Uzbek relations have recently been improving. In early November, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Karimov in the ancient city of Samarkand on the side-lines of a meeting between himself and the foreign ministers of five central Asian nations, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
During his four-day visit to the region, Kerry reassured the former Soviet states of Washington’s support in their battle against militancy amid an increasing threat of insurgency from neighbouring Afghanistan, where some militant cells have pledged their allegiance to DAESH, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile in the US, an Uzbek man, Fazliddin Kurbanov, was sentenced on Thursday to 25 years in prison for allegedly planning to attack a US military base or civilians at crowded Fourth of July celebrations in downtown Boise, Idaho. The sentence includes three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine, as well as deportation upon release.
Prosecutors accused Kurbanov of making contact with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and before his arrest in 2013, while US Assistant Attorney Aaron Lucoff said the defendant sought to avenge US military action in central Asia.
Kurbanov, a 33-year-old Russian-speaking truck driver who fled Uzbekistan in 2009, denied the charges, telling US District Judge Edward J. Lodge through an interpreter, "I'd like to say that I'm not a terrorist. I've never been a terrorist."