A Muslim blogger from Uzbekistan who has been in arbitrary detention for five months is facing charges of threatening public security with a potential eight-year prison sentence, for an innocuous social media post, Human Rights Watch said today.
The police initially detained Fazilhoja Arifhojaev on June 28, 2021, on petty hooliganism charges, for which he served 15 days in detention, but instead of releasing him, continued to hold him in pretrial detention on the new criminal charges. Arifhojaev’s family reports that he has been ill-treated and denied adequate medical treatment in detention.
“The criminal case against Fazilhoja Arifhojaev appears to be totally unfounded and Uzbek authorities should release him immediately,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Worryingly, Arifhojaev’s health has significantly worsened since his arrest and he urgently needs medical treatment.”
Arifhojaev, 41, is a Muslim blogger from Tashkent who is well-known for criticizing the Uzbek government’s restrictive religious policies. His pretrial detention is due to end on December 13.
Arifhojaev was involved in a dispute with a 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, police summoned Arifhojaev to the station, where they arrested him on charges of petty hooliganism and confiscated his mobile phone. The same day, a court sentenced him to 15 days detention.
While he served that sentence, the authorities denied Arifhojaev’s lawyer of choice, Sergey Mayorov, access to him, citing the Covid pandemic as a pretext. Mayorov repeatedly tried to visit his client, but was refused, he told Human Rights Watch. Forum18, an international religious freedom watchdog, further reported that during this 15-day detention prison authorities seriously ill-treated Arifhojaev.
On July 13 as Arifhojaev was due to be released, police summoned Mayorov and told him that they had opened a criminal case against Arifhojaev on charges of “distributing or displaying materials containing a threat to public security and public order using mass media or telecommunication, or the Internet” for a Facebook post they had found via Arifhojaev’s phone. On March 6, 2021, Arifhojaev had uploaded a post commenting on whether it is appropriate for a Muslim to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays.
A state-ordered expert analysis concluded that the content of the post could “cause panic among the population” and constituted “religious fundamentalism,” Mayorov, who was acquainted with the content of the analysis before he was required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, told Human Rights Watch. This is the only publicly known action to which the charges relate.
Because of Uzbekistan’s lack of transparency and the fact that his lawyer was forced to sign the nondisclosure agreement, a common practice in extremism-related cases, such as this one, it is possible that the authorities’ allegations about his actions extend beyond what is known publicly.
A Tashkent court ordered Arifhojaev’s pretrial detention for three months, later extended until December 13. It is not clear when his case will be heard in court.
Mayorov told Human Rights Watch that the police have ill-treated his client both physically and psychologically in pretrial detention, including treatment that constitutes torture, and that Arifhojaev has become depressed as a result. At the end of September, police handcuffed Arifhojaev to a pipe and made him sit in a stress position for nearly 12 hours, causing him excruciating pain, Mayorov said.
Members of Arifhojaev’s family told Human Rights Watch that his health has deteriorated since July. Arifhojaev suffers from hernias in his spine, which has led to back pain and difficulty walking. He is not permitted to use crutches in detention. He has also fainted multiple times in recent weeks and has heart-related issues, they said. Due to a toothache that has not been treated for many weeks, Arifhojaev apparently has not been able to eat properly and has lost weight.
Arifhojaev was transferred to the prison medical center for a checkup and treatment, but did not receive adequate treatment, in part due to overcrowding in the medical center, his family said.
Forum18, an international religious freedom watchdog, reported that during Arifhojaev’s initial 15-day detention, the police had forcibly shaved off Arifhojaev’s beard, kept him in solitary confinement, and did not allow him to shower or change his clothes. Police also insulted him and threatened to lock him away after he demanded to meet with his lawyer, Forum18 reported.
Expressing in a Facebook post a religious view about whether Muslims can or should congratulate people of other faiths on their religious holidays may be contentious to some, but it is certainly not a crime, and moreover, is speech protected by international human rights norms, Human Rights Watch said.
Arifhojaev’s detention on the basis of protected speech is arbitrary and violates international law. These blatant violations of obligations to respect freedom of expression, and rights to liberty, security, due process, and humane treatment come as Uzbekistan holds a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Uzbek authorities should immediately release Arifhojaev, ensure 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 zero to do with a genuine threat to public order and everything to do with the Uzbek authorities’ desire to silence a government critic, who also happens to be Muslim,” Rittmann said. “Uzbek authorities should drop this bogus case and release Arifhojaev from pretrial detention immediately.”