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Uzbekistan: Muslim blogger faces 8 years in prison for social media post

Fazilhoja Arifhojaev faces public security threat charges based on an innocuous social media post about whether it is appropriate for a Muslim to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays.

This statement was originally posted on hrw.org on December 9, 2021.

Drop unfounded charges, free blogger, defend freedom of expression

A Muslim blogger from Uzbekistan who has been in arbitrary detention for five months is charged with undermining public security with a potential sentence of eight years in prison, for an innocuous social media post, Human Rights Watch said today .

Police first detained Fazilhoja Arifhojaev on June 28, 2021 on petty hooliganism charges, for which he served 15 days of detention, but instead of releasing him, continued to keep him in pre-trial detention on the new charges. criminal. Arifhojaev’s family report that he was mistreated and deprived of adequate medical care in detention.

“The criminal case against Fazilhoja Arifhojaev appears to be completely unfounded and the Uzbek authorities should release him immediately,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior researcher on Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “Disturbingly, Arifhojaev’s health has deteriorated dramatically since his arrest and he is in urgent need of medical attention. “

Arifhojaev, 41, is a Muslim blogger from Tashkent best known for criticizing the Uzbek government’s restrictive religious policies. His pre-trial detention is due to end on December 13.

Arifhojaev was involved in a dispute with pro-government blogger and cleric Abrorzhon Abduazimov at the time of his arrest. On June 26, Arifhojaev publicly confronted Abduazimov at the Tuhtaboi Mosque in Tashkent, where Abduazimov was preaching. During their exchange, Arifhojaev called Abduazimov a “hypocrite”. On June 28, the police summoned Arifhojaev to the police station, where they arrested him for petty hooliganism and confiscated his cell phone. On the same day, a court sentenced him to 15 days in detention.

While serving this sentence, the authorities refused Arifhojaev’s lawyer of choice, Sergey Mayorov, access to him, citing the Covid pandemic as a pretext. Mayorov made several attempts to visit his client, but was refused, he told Human Rights Watch. Forum18, an international religious freedom watchdog, further reported that during the 15-day detention, the prison authorities severely mistreated Arifhojaev.

On July 13, when Arifhojaev was due for release, police summoned Mayorov and told him that they had opened criminal proceedings against Arifhojaev for “distributing or posting materials containing a threat to public safety and order. audience using mass media or telecommunications, or the Internet ”for a Facebook post they found through Arifhojaev’s phone. On March 6, 2021, Arifhojaev posted an article online indicating whether it was appropriate for a Muslim to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays.

State-ordered expert analysis concluded that the contents of the message could “cause panic among the population” and amount to “religious fundamentalism,” said Mayorov, who was familiar with the contents of the analysis before having to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Human Rights Watch. This is the only publicly known action to which the charges relate.

Due to Uzbekistan’s lack of transparency and the fact that its lawyer was forced to sign the confidentiality agreement, a common practice in extremism-related cases like this one, it is possible that the allegations authorities regarding his actions extend beyond what is known. publicly.

A court in Tashkent ordered Arifhojaev’s pre-trial detention for three months, then extended until December 13. It is not known when his case will be heard by the court.

Mayorov told Human Rights Watch that the police abused his client both physically and psychologically in pre-trial detention, including treatment that constitutes torture, and Arifhojaev became depressed as a result. In late September, police handcuffed Arifhojaev to a pipe and made him sit in a stressful position for almost 12 hours, causing him excruciating pain, Mayorov said.

Members of Arifhojaev’s family told Human Rights Watch that his health had deteriorated since July. Arifhojaev suffers from hernias in his spine, which has caused him back pain and difficulty walking. He is not allowed to use crutches in detention. He has also passed out on several occasions in recent weeks and has heart problems, they said. Due to a toothache that has not been treated for several weeks, Arifhojaev apparently could not eat properly and lost weight.

Arifhojaev was transferred to the prison medical center for examination and treatment, but did not receive adequate treatment, in part due to overcrowding at the medical center, his family said.

Forum18, an international religious freedom watchdog, reported that during Arifhojaev’s initial 15-day detention, police forcibly shaved Arifhojaev’s beard, kept him in solitary confinement and failed to release him. not allowed to take a shower or change of clothes. Police also insulted him and threatened to lock him up after he asked to meet with his lawyer, Forum18 reported.

Expressing in a Facebook post a religious point of view on whether Muslims can or should congratulate people of other faiths on their religious holidays may be controversial to some, but it is certainly not a crime, and of course. Plus, is the speech protected by international human rights standards, Rights Watch said.

The detention of Arifhojaev on the basis of protected speech is arbitrary and violates international law. These blatant violations of the obligations to respect freedom of expression and the rights to liberty, security, due process and humane treatment come as Uzbekistan sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council .

Uzbek authorities should immediately release Arifhojaev, ensure that he has access to adequate medical treatment for his ill health and urgently investigate his allegations of ill-treatment and torture.

“It is not difficult to see that the case against Arifhojaev has nothing to do with a real threat to public order and everything to do with the desire of the Uzbek authorities to silence a critic of the government, who also found to be Muslim, ”said Rittmann. “The Uzbek authorities should drop this bogus case and release Arifhojaev from his pre-trial detention immediately. “