Back in early February, police in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, detained 20 men in their early thirties on charges of disorderly conduct. Fifteen were released immediately, but the remaining five were slapped with 15-day jail terms for allegedly harassing a woman and refusing to obey police orders.
Although the episode did not seem especially noteworthy on the surface, the National Security Service – or SNB in its Russian initials – quickly got involved.
What drew the interest of security agents was that all the detainees were members of Uzbekistan’s tiny community of ethnic Iranian Shia Muslims. The homes of the men were searched, seemingly in a hunt for compromising religious literature. Attention focused on two of the five detainees – Zhahangir Kulizhanov and Shavkat Azimov.
When the pair served out their petty hooliganism rap, they were charged with another, more serious, crime – illegally establishing a public association, or religious organization. The suggestion was that they were secretly propagating radical Shia views among members of their community.
They were both released from detention pending trial, but on May 30, Kulizhanov was again summoned to the local office of the SNB and charged with yet another offense – production and dissemination of materials deemed a threat to public order. Kulizhanov was again taken into custody and remains in detention to this day.
On August 22, a Bukhara District Court judge ordered Azimov and Kulizhanov to pay a $1,000 fine on the illegal religious association charge. The trial for Kulizhanov’s other charge, which is punishable by up to eight years in prison, is still to come.
Prosecutions against Muslims are nothing unusual for Uzbekistan. But Azimov’s lawyer, Munozhot Parpiyeva, told EurasiaNet.org that she believes these are the first criminal trials in Uzbekistan’s history that are specifically singling out Shias on religious grounds.
The accused and their family members believe their minority status leaves them vulnerable to abuse. When the group of 20 – all of them ethnic Iranians and Shia Muslims – was detained, police searched their homes without a warrant. They had their phones confiscated and were unable to contact a lawyer of their choice.
Officials have issued no public comments on the allegations made by Samadova and rights activists working on behalf of the accused.
Among those held for 15 days was Alibek Husanov. His mother, Nodira Samadova, described the two-week stay in jail as a cavalcade of abuse. “For the entire time, all five were kept in solitary confinement. They were roughly treated and subjected to mental and physical mistreatment. Their right to make a phone call, and have access to a defense [lawyer] were crudely violated,” Samadova told EurasiaNet.org.
Bukhara-based rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev, who has been trying to draw attention to the case, alleged the detainees came under pressure to confess that they had been in contact with an Iraqi businessman living in Bukhara who investigators claim was trying to recruit local Shias to fight against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.
The men at the heart of this case believe they are being discriminated against on two fronts – for being ethnic Persians and Shia Muslims.
According to official figures, around 98 percent of Uzbekistan’s Muslims are Sunni. There are by some estimates a few thousand Shias, predominantly ethnic Iranians living in Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as ethnic Azeris.
But nobody knows quite how many ethnic Iranians live in Uzbekistan. In the 1989 census, some 25,000 people were listed as Iranian. But the community is not named at all in the censuses of 2000 and 2013.
Samadova explained that ethnic Iranians have in more recent surveys simply been designated as Uzbeks. “When I received my biometric passport, in the field reserved for ethnicity, it just said Uzbek. But in my old passport I was described as Persian. In the passport office they to me that my parent’s ethnicity was Uzbek and so, accordingly, I could no longer be Persian,” she said.
The religious issue is even more tangled.
Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, an expert on Islamic culture and history, said that Shias operate legally and are represented in the state-approved Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Uzbekistan.
Yet Ganiyev, the rights activist, said the investigations and trial showed how poorly the authorities understand the specifics of Shia Islam. “The prosecution provided what they said was evidence of alleged appeals to religious discord, but similar passages are contained in officially authorized literature used in mosques. The lack of a competent expert on Shiism has led to a ridiculous interpretation,” Ganiyev told EurasiaNet.org.
Indeed, among the suspect materials found in Kulizhanov’s possession were recordings made by a Russian Shia preacher going under the name of Amin Ramin. The preacher in question, who was originally called Dmitry and converted to Shia Islam in the late 2000s, created a lecture-cum-sermon series in Russian, covering the history of Shia Islam and the faith’s basic tenets.
If Shia Muslims in Uzbekistan turn to Amin Ramin, it is not for any especially sensational message, but because he is easy to understand.
The imam at Bukhara’s only Shia mosque, I. Habibov, said in a letter that their collection holds only 114 authorized religious works, and all of them are in either Arabic or Farsi.
So Husanov, one of the five detainees, told EurasiaNet.org that he and his friends listen to Amin Ramin’s sermons in Russian on the internet instead. “Shia religious literature hasn’t been translated into Uzbek. It is written either in Arabic or Persian. But I don’t speak Arabic, and I don’t understand the religious texts in Persian that well. So I read and listen to sermons by the preacher Amin Ramin on various themes of Shia Islam,” he said.
The specific recording that landed Kulizhanov in trouble was titled “The Movement of Imam Hussein” – an account of the life and teachings of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the third Shia Imam.
There is no specific official document designating Amin Ramin’s works as forbidden religious material. And yet the very fact of it propagating Shia beliefs appears to have been enough to earn the attention of the authorities.
Robert Almeyev, a historian of Bukhara, said that Shias in the city, particularly the ethnic Iranians, often disguise their religious affiliation for fear of repression. “Bukhara’s Iranian community is assimilating. Among them you find Shias and Sunnis. We have no official figures about Iranians. All the Iranians live in one densely populated neighborhood called Zhuibar,” Almeyev told EurasiaNet.org.
Kulizhanov, who is still in jail, is the only one left with a serious legal battle to fight. But others worry that their legal troubles may not be over. “There is a fear that they could eventually charge me too [for the production and dissemination of materials containing a threat to public order],” Azimov told EurasiaNet.org.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.