OSLO, Norway (ABP) — Uzbekistan has sentenced a Baptist arrested in January to 10 years in prison on drug charges that fellow Baptists insist are fabricated.
Forum 18, a Norwegian news service that tracks stories about abuses of religious freedom, reported that Tohar Haydarov, 27, was sentenced March 9 for selling "large quantities" of illicit drugs. He was arrested Jan. 18 in the region of Syrdarya in central Uzbekistan. Authorities accused him of producing and storing drugs
Fellow church members described Haydarov as "a man with a pure conscience and an honest Christian" and claimed he was set up for arrest because of his religious convictions.
Uzbekistan's 1998 religion law allows only registered religious organizations to worship. Haydarov belongs to the Baptist Council of Churches, a group that refuses to register its congregations within the former Soviet Union and advocates strict separation of church and state.
Baptists who spoke to Forum 18 said after his arrest, Haydarov was taken to a police station and pressured to renounce his faith. When he refused, the Baptists said, police planted a matchbox containing drugs in his coat pocket and placed him under arrest.
Church members reported that at his initial court appearance Haydarov's face appeared swollen as if he had been beaten and that he could hardly walk.
Uzbekistan's constitution officially guarantees religious freedom, but minority religious groups say the law has increasingly been used to suppress human rights and religious freedom in a country that is 84 percent Muslim, 15 percent non-religious and 1 percent Christian.
Last fall a judge in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent ordered three leaders of the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan suspended from their leadership positions for three years after their conviction of illegal religious activity at a children's summer camp that had been held without interference for several years.
Members of the Baptist union, which is registered, attributed the crackdown to a government-backed media campaign to depict Baptists as a dangerous cult that targets children for proselytizing.
Baptist friends of Haydarov who tried to attend his trial, which began March 4, were not allowed to enter the courtroom until March 9, as the judge asked the prosecutor to present the final arguments.
One source told Forum 18 that the only apparent reason the Baptists were invited inside was so they could be filmed inside the courtroom. The individual said authorities would likely use the film to tell the public that Baptists use drugs under the guise of worshipping God.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.