The authorities in Uzbekistan have reportedly embarked on a fresh wave of harassment against men wearing beards, sparking concerns about a worsening climate for religious freedoms.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, reported on February 11 that police patrolling the Techno-Olam shopping complex in Tashkent one Friday earlier this month detained at least 10 people with facial hair.
Traders at the market, which is popularly known as Malika, said detainees were later taken to a nearby police precinct and made to shave under threat of imprisonment.
“More than 10 believers were detained last Friday and were given an ultimatum: shave the beards or face 15 days in jail,” one unnamed trader told the U.S.-funded broadcaster.
Another eyewitness claimed that similar raids are now taking place almost weekly.
“A slight beard growth triggers demands for shaving, and people with long beards are escorted to the police station,” the eyewitness is reported to have said.
Police officials contacted by Ozodlik, however, denied these accounts and said that the heightened police presence at the bazaar around the period of Friday prayers was purely in the interests of maintaining public order.
But concerns have been expressed elsewhere that the Uzbek government is backsliding on religious freedoms, despite a recent trend toward improvement.
In a statement in May, Human Rights Watch accused the authorities of obstructing the official recognition of religious groups, imposing random restrictions on individuals previously imprisoned for their religious beliefs, and using broadly defined and imprecisely articulated legislation as grounds for prosecuting pious Muslims.
“President Shavkat Mirziyoyev received credit early on for initiating reforms granting more religious freedoms in Uzbekistan, but what we’re seeing today is a mixed record, in which serious abuses occur with impunity,” Mihra Rittmann, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said at the time.
Similar language was deployed by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in September in response to reports that religious figures had been subjected to raids, that some Muslim men were being forced to shave their beards and that school administrators were making schoolgirls remove their hijabs.
USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel said these incidents were sufficient grounds for the U.S. government to consider placing Uzbekistan on its Special Watch List.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing the reemergence of practices that only serve to intimidate believers of all kinds and suppress religious expression,” Turkel said.
As of the end of 2023, the one former Soviet republic included in the Special Watch List Countries was Azerbaijan.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, meanwhile, are listed as Countries of Particular Concern, which is the designation envisioned under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act for governments assessed as engaging in severe violations of religious freedom, characterized by systematic actions such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, and forced disappearances.