Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan

Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan
1 / 2
Luiza Muminjonova wanted to work in the country’s booming Islamic tourism sphere but last year she was expelled from a university in the capital Tashkent. (AFP)
Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan
2 / 2
A picture taken on March 13, 2019 shows Uzbek women as they stand near a court building in Tashkent. (AFP)
Updated 28 May 2019

Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan

Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan

TASHKENT: Uzbek student Luiza Muminjonova wanted to work in the country’s booming Islamic tourism sphere but last year she was expelled from a university in the capital Tashkent.
The 19-year-old’s only fault was being a pious Muslim and wearing the hijab, a staple of female Islamic dress.
“How dare they discriminate (against) me and stop me from getting the education I want because of my religion?” she fumed in an interview with AFP.
Instead of giving up, the student took a stand that has placed her at the center of Uzbekistan’s religious freedom debate.
Her family has sued the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, taking its legal battle all the way to the country’s top court.
Muminjonova’s case points to the Uzbeks’ increasing readiness to openly practice their faith as believers become emboldened by political change under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The formerly communist country’s repression of the religion persisted long after it gained independence from Moscow in 1991.
The first president Islam Karimov frowned upon religious adherence and was criticized by rights groups for conflating piety with radicalism.
Extremists mounted a challenge to Karimov’s rule in the 1990s and were blamed for a spate of car bombings in 1999.
More recently, hundreds of Uzbeks are believed to have joined militants fighting in Iraq and Syria including Daesh.
Karimov’s death and the coming to power of Mirziyoyev in 2016 has seen the government offer an olive branch to believers.
Last year mosques were allowed to call Uzbeks to prayer over loudspeakers for the first time in over a decade.
During a visit to a shrine in the historic town of Termez last month, Mirziyoyev called the past approach of authorities to the religion “our tragedy” and said Islam symbolized “light.”
Over 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s 33 million population is Muslim and social conservatism runs deep, especially in the provinces.
Amid an Islamic revival, school uniforms have recently become a cultural battleground between conservatives and supporters of secularism.
A universal school uniform insisting on below knee-length skirts for female students was rolled out last year. A television report that criticized teachers and students for wearing short skirts immediately followed.
The September report set the tone for an explosive debate that played out on social media and saw the channel’s director demoted.
Conservative bloggers were reportedly detained the same month for calling for the right for girls to wear the hijab in schools.

Muminjonova said the university that expelled her and nine other students last September “set a condition” to around a hundred freshmen students.
“(They said) either you take off a headscarf, or you will be expelled,” Muminjonova recalled, smoothing her fingers over the rose-colored cotton headcovering.
After she refused to comply, Muminjonova was kicked out of the dormitory and was not allowed to attend classes.
She said that being asked to take off the hijab was “like being forced to give up on my faith.”
Ironically, the school focusses on religious learning.
What happened next was remarkable for a country where nationals have for decades toed the government line.
Muminjonova’s family took legal action against the academy in order to reinstate the student and affirm her right to attend university wearing the headcovering.
Even more surprisingly, a local court agreed to hear the case, which saw over a dozen hijab-wearing girls and their mothers stand near the courtroom during hearings in a show of solidarity.
After failing to secure a university climbdown in both district and city courts, Muminjonova’s family has taken the case to the Supreme Court.
Seemingly in recognition of more breathing space for religion, the US State Department last year removed Uzbekistan’s sanction-carrying designation as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom.
But in April the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said that “severe violations of religious freedom persisted” and recommended the State Department put Uzbekistan back on the watchlist.
International rights groups have used a newfound dialogue with the new administration to push for more religious freedom, both for Muslims and other groups.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, cited anecdotal evidence “that perhaps hundreds of religious prisoners have been released” since Mirziyoyev came to power.
Campaigners believe the extremism charges the people were jailed on were brought without due process and that torture was used during the investigations.
“There are many, many more (religious prisoners) still in jail,” Swerdlow told AFP.
Almost an entire academic year on from her expulsion, the family’s lawyer Abduvahob Yakubov — whose own daughter was also expelled for the same reason — fears the judiciary is stalling the case.
“The Supreme Court should have responded to our appeal within 30 days,” said Yakubov, adding they lodged an appeal in late March.
A defiant Muminjonova said she would turn to international courts if the justice system at home failed her.
“We cannot keep silent anymore,” she said.


Delta variant blamed for Bangladeshi surge in COVID-19 infections

Delta variant blamed for Bangladeshi surge in COVID-19 infections
Updated 04 August 2021

Delta variant blamed for Bangladeshi surge in COVID-19 infections

Delta variant blamed for Bangladeshi surge in COVID-19 infections
  • Ramped-up vaccination drive crucial to curbing the outbreak, officials say

DHAKA: More than 50 percent of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections and nearly 44 percent of virus-related deaths across Bangladesh have been traced to the highly transmissible delta variant of the disease, health authorities confirmed on Tuesday.

The government’s Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) on Monday said over 15,000 infections and 246 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, taking the total caseload to 1,280,317 and death toll to 21,500 since the pandemic began in March last year.

“Some of our organisations, including the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), conducted genome sequencing on small-sized samples. It shows that more than 50 percent of recent infections are caused by the delta (variant),” Dr. Mushtuq Hussain, an adviser to the IEDCR, told Arab News, adding: “Of the recent deaths, around 44 percent were infected with the delta variant.”

The worrying trend comes amid several warnings by health experts that the outbreak might worsen after authorities relaxed the COVID-19 curbs ahead of the Eid Al-Adha festival in late July.

Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis traveled from various cities, including the capital Dhaka, to their home villages before lockdown was reimposed for two more weeks until Aug. 5.

Speaking to reporters at the time, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said the crisis was “most difficult,” citing a nearly 90 percent occupancy rate at hospitals, before calling upon the public to follow health restrictions to curb the outbreak.

“We failed to follow the health safety protocols and the lockdown initiative also failed miserably since factories and banks were in operation during those days,” Prof. Robed Amin, a DGHS spokesperson, told Arab News.

“Most people were reluctant to comply with health safety measures, especially wearing masks while going outside. We should have engaged people more in building awareness in this regard,” he said, adding that a strict lockdown was necessary to “reap good results.”

Bangladesh, which shares a long border with India, began experiencing an upward trend in delta variant cases in mid-May, which peaked two months later as the country started recording more than 200 daily deaths in the first week of July.

Dr. Hussain said that while the variant has impacted eight bordering districts, Dhaka remains the “worst affected.”

“If the current trend continues, it may take a couple of weeks to reduce the infection rate,” he said.

However, despite a surge in delta variant cases rattling several parts of the country, Hussain said Bangladesh was “still doing better than other regional countries” grappling with the pandemic.

“Compared to neighboring India, Nepal, and some other regional countries, Bangladesh is not lagging in managing the COVID-19 outbreak. In India, it took three months to contain the surge caused by delta,” he said.

In April, the South Asian nation of nearly 170 million was forced to suspend its nationwide inoculation drive after a halt in exports of the AstraZeneca jabs from India. Bangladesh resumed the vaccination campaign with China’s Sinopharm and the Pfizer vaccine supplied by the Covax facility, a global vaccine sharing initiative.

However, less than 3 percent of the population had been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 1.

Prof. Amin said it was imperative to achieve herd immunity against the deadly virus with a “massive vaccination drive.”

“If we can inoculate around 10 million people per month according to the plan which will begin from next Saturday, the infection rate will reduce soon,” he said.

“In the next two months, we will be able to inoculate around 20 million people with the vaccines sourced from the Covax initiative and purchased by the Bangladesh government.”


US says Myanmar poll plan shows need for ASEAN to step up efforts

US says Myanmar poll plan shows need for ASEAN to step up efforts
Updated 04 August 2021

US says Myanmar poll plan shows need for ASEAN to step up efforts

US says Myanmar poll plan shows need for ASEAN to step up efforts
  • Washington had proposed expanding engagement with ASEAN to include five new ‘multi-ministerial’-level dialogues, which it hoped the bloc would agree to soon

WASHINGTON: The plan by Myanmar’s ruling generals to hold elections in two years shows they are stalling for time and the need for Southeast Asian countries to step up pressure on them, a senior State Department official said on Monday.

“It’s clear that the Burmese junta is just stalling for time and wants to keep prolonging the calendar to its own advantage,” the official told reporters ahead of a ministerial meeting this week between the United States and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar.

“So, all the more reason why ASEAN has to engage on this and ... uphold the terms of the five point consensus that Myanmar also signed up to,” he said referring to a plan by ASEAN leaders to tackle the turmoil.

The official briefing reporters ahead of a week of virtual meetings involving US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and regional counterparts said Washington had proposed expanding engagement with ASEAN to include five new “multi-ministerial”-level dialogues, which it hoped the bloc would agree to soon.

The official said one of the areas was climate, but did not list the others.

He said he expected Blinken to provide details to ASEAN ministers of continued US support for Southeast Asia in the fight against COVID-19, which has hit the region hard.

Blinken would also raise what Washington sees as China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, he said.

Asked about China’s warnings that if Washington expected cooperation on issues such as climate, it would need to de-escalate tensions, the official replied:

“Look, if we can’t force China to cooperate, we can continue to point out the advantages, and hopefully they’ll see that this is also in their advantage to work with us on climate issues.”

Washington is seeking to show through Blinken’s participation in five consecutive days of regional meetings that the Biden administration is serious about engaging with allies and partners in its bid to push back against China’s growing influence.

As well as the US-ASEAN ministerial talks, Blinken will also participate virtually this week in ministerial meetings of the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Mekong-US Partnership and the Friends of the Mekong initiative.


Human rights court stops Austria from deporting Afghan — NGO

Human rights court stops Austria from deporting Afghan — NGO
Updated 03 August 2021

Human rights court stops Austria from deporting Afghan — NGO

Human rights court stops Austria from deporting Afghan — NGO
  • The ECHR decision told the Vienna government to delay until Aug. 31 the planned deportation of the man
  • The court asked the government to explain how it planned to conduct the removal given

ZURICH: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has temporarily halted the imminent deportation from Austria of an Afghan whose request for asylum was turned down, a relief group supporting the man said on Tuesday.
The ECHR decision, published on the website of the non-governmental organization Counselling for Deserters and Refugees, told the Vienna government to delay until Aug. 31 the planned deportation of the man, whose identity was not released.
The court asked the government to explain how it planned to conduct the removal given that Afghanistan has informed EU members that it has stopped accepting such deportations until Oct. 8.
It also asked whether “there is a real risk of irreparable harm” to the applicant’s rights given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
Clashes between Afghan forces and the Taliban have intensified across the country, with the insurgent group gaining control over check points, trading posts and infrastructure projects.
The court ruling applied only to the man in question.
The European Union is weighing a new package of financial aid to Afghanistan and its neighbors to help limit the flow of refugees from the country, ravaged by intense fighting between government forces and the Taliban, officials told Reuters last month.


US: Kabul attack bears Taliban hallmark

US: Kabul attack bears Taliban hallmark
Updated 03 August 2021

US: Kabul attack bears Taliban hallmark

US: Kabul attack bears Taliban hallmark
  • Taliban have seized control of much of rural Afghanistan since foreign forces began withdrawing in May
  • Fighting is raging for Lashkar Gah with the UN saying at least 40 civilians were killed in the last 24 hours

RIYADH:  The US Sate Department has said that a recent attack in the Afghan capital is consistent with previous attacks carried out by the Taliban, though it is not yet in a position to officially indicate who exactly carried it out. 

A car bomb explosion followed by several blasts and rapid gunfire rocked Kabul, not far from the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses several embassies, including the US mission.
“We’re not in a position to attribute it officially just yet but of course it does bear all the hallmarks of the spate of Taliban attacks that we have seen in recent weeks,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. 
“It’s important for the Taliban to recognize that it cannot achieve its objectives by seizing power through violence,” he added.
No one immediately took responsibility for the attack that apparently targeted the country’s acting defense minister, but it came as Taliban insurgents have been pressing ahead with an offensive that is putting pressure on the provincial capitals in the south and west of the country.
Clashes have intensified since early May after President Joe Biden announced US troops would leave the country by September after almost 20 years battling the group. 
Unidentified gunmen were killed at Tuesday’s attack site which is home to Afghan officials, lawmakers and prominent residents.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai said the blast happened in the posh Sherpur neighborhood, which is in a deeply secure section of the capital known as the green zone. It is home to several senior government officials.
Stanekzai said it appeared the guesthouse of acting Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi was targeted in the attack. His Jamiat-e-Islami party was told the minister was not in the guesthouse and his family had been safely evacuated.
A party leader and former vice president, Younus Qanooni, reassured the party in a message shared on social media that the minister and his family were safe.
The Defense Ministry released a video in which Mohammadi says that his guards had been wounded in a suicide attack. “I assure my beloved countrymen that such attacks cannot have any impact on my willingness to defend my countrymen and my country,” he says.
Details of the attack were sketchy even as it ended but it appeared that gunmen had entered the area after the explosion. Stanekzai said three attackers were killed by security personnel and a clean-up operation was conducted by police. All roads leading to the minister’s house and guesthouse were closed, he said.
Hundreds of residents in the area were moved to safety, said Ferdaws Faramarz, spokesman for the Kabul police chief. He said security personnel had also carried out house-to-house searches.
At least 11 people were wounded in the attack and were taken to hospitals in the capital, said Health Ministry spokesman Dastgir Nazari.
Daesh has claimed some recent attacks in Kabul but most have gone unclaimed, with the government blaming the Taliban and the Taliban blaming the government.
After the attack, hundreds of civilians in Kabul came out on to the streets and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) to express their support for Afghan government forces and opposition to the Taliban.
The night-time march spilled across the city with mostly men and some women joining in the demonstrations, carrying candles and Afghan flags to signal united opposition to the hardline Islamist group.
“The whole world can choose to be silent about what is going on in Afghanistan but we can’t and won’t stay quiet anymore...we will stand side by side with our security forces until our last breath,” said a demonstrator in Kabul on condition of anonymity.
The country’s first Vice President Amrullah Saleh said the demonstrations were “historic moments” of “emotions and patriotism.”
“Allah o Akbar, death to Talib terrorists & their backer,” he said in a tweet at a time when Afghan forces flushed out militants in the overnight operations.
Last week, residents in the western province of Herat braved the streets despite nearby fighting to protest against the Taliban. Other cities quickly organized to join from their homes in the evenings, as a message of support for embattled security forces.
Afghan forces appealed to residents of the southern city of Lashkar Gah to leave their homes and stay away from areas where the Taliban were taking control, as they intend to launch operations against the group where its fighters were traveling freely.
The loss of Lashkar Gah would be a huge strategic defeat for the government, which has pledged to defend strategic centres after losing much of the rural parts to the Taliban in recent months.
The Taliban said their fighters killed a district governor of central Maidan Wardak province on Tuesday, the latest in a series of killings by the insurgent group aimed at eliminating senior government officials and social activists. 

— with input from AP, Reuters, AFP


Lithuania to turn migrants crossing in from Belarus away

Lithuania to turn migrants crossing in from Belarus away
Updated 03 August 2021

Lithuania to turn migrants crossing in from Belarus away

Lithuania to turn migrants crossing in from Belarus away
  • Lithuania says the migrant influx in the past months is an act of retaliation to increased sanctions by the European Union
  • Interior Ministry distributed a video shot from a helicopter as a proof that large groups of immigrants were being escorted to Lithuania's EU border

VILNIUS, Lithuania: Lithuania has ordered its border guards to turn away, by force if needed, migrants attempting to enter the Baltic country.
This comes amid a surge of Iraqis and others coming in from neighboring Belarus has emerged as a major foreign policy issue.
Lithuania says the migrant influx in the past months is an act of retaliation by Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to increased sanctions by the European Union toward his country over an air piracy incident.
The Interior Ministry distributed a video shot from a helicopter as a proof that large groups of immigrants were being escorted to Lithuania’s EU border by vehicles belonging to Belarus border guards.
Lithuania’s Interior Ministry said Tuesday that at least three large migrant groups were stopped in thick woods in the border between the two countries, and Lithuanian border guards ordered them to return back to Belarus.
“First of all, (Lithuanian border) officers tell them (migrants) that they are lost; that they have arrived in the beautiful country of Belarus and got the wrong way while enjoying its nature but now they must continue the tourist track back into that country,” Vice Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavicius told reporters.
If that method proves unsuccessful, he said Lithuania has reserved the right to use force to keep the migrants away but “the use of force depends on circumstances.”
“It cannot be ruled out that (border guard) officers will face aggression” from migrants, Abramavicius said, adding the measures were necessary to stop illegal border crossings. “Lithuania can not accept this influx, which grows day by day.”
Some 4,026 migrants, most of them from Iraq, have crossed from Belarus into Lithuania, a EU and NATO nation of slightly less than 3 million, this year. Lithuanian officials turned away 180 migrants attempting to enter the country on Tuesday.
Lithuania officials estimate that more than 10,000 more migrants might try to arrive this year as the number of direct flights from Iraq to the Belarus capital of Minsk tripled in August. The country has no physical barriers for its almost 679 kilometer (420-mile) long border with Belarus.
On Monday, EU officials pledged millions of euros to help Lithuania tackle its migrant crisis.
Lithuania wants to build a physical barrier with Belarus, which it estimates will cost more than 100 million euros ($119 million) but EU funding is not usually permitted to finance border barriers.
Some Lithuanian politicians, meanwhile, urged the government to still respect the migrants’ rights.
Tomas Vytautas Raskevicius, the head of the parliamentary human rights committee, said he saw the measures taken by Lithuanian authorities as “necessary” but acknowledged that the migrant situation “is sensitive from the point of view of human rights, and that should be assessed.”
Raskevicius, a member of the liberal Freedom Party, said attention should be paid in particular to women who migrate with children.