Professor and students fight to release political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan and beyond
Steve Swerdlow (left) conducts interviews on human rights abuses and religious freedom in Tajikistan in 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Steve Swerdlow.)

Professor and students fight to release political and religious prisoners in Uzbekistan and beyond

Steve Swerdlow, who has worked to secure the release of numerous political prisoners, wants his students to understand that their work in the classroom can change the lives of people thousands of miles away.
Meredith McGroarty

Key takeaways:

  • There are more than 2,000 religious prisoners in Uzbekistan, arrested on vague charges with no evidence of a connection to a crime.
  • USC Dornsife professor Steve Swerdlow has been working to help free those who were wrongfully imprisoned.
  • Swerdlow recently testified before Congress about his report on Uzbekistan’s religious and political prisoners.
  • Students in Swerdlow’s class write profiles of current political prisoners, which human rights organizations, journalists and diplomats use to advocate for prisoners’ release.

In 1999, Habibullah Madmarov was 20 and living with his wife and children in Margilon, a city in eastern Uzbekistan — a country then experiencing deepening repression under the rule of its first and longstanding authoritarian president, Islam Karimov. former state of the now-defunct Soviet Union. Without warning, government officials arrested him on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” in addition to other politically motivated charges. Despite a lack of evidence linking him to any sort of violent activity, he spent the next 21 years in prison, where he was beaten and repeatedly pressured to sign documents seeking “forgiveness” for his crimes.

After a campaign by Uzbek human rights activists and the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom(USCIRF) — a bipartisan congressional body that monitors religious freedom around the world — Madmarov was freed in June 2021.

One individual instrumental in Madmarov’s release was Steve Swerdlow, associate professor of the practice of political science and international relations at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Swerdlow, a human rights attorney and expert on the post-Soviet region, has for years researched and advocated for the release of political and religious prisoners in many former Soviet states, including Uzbekistan.

Advocating for human rights

From 1989 to 2016, Uzbekistan was ruled by Communist Party boss and authoritarian Islam Karimov, under whose 27-year reign the state rigidly controlled religious practice and civic life in the majority Muslim nation, imprisoning thousands on a variety of spurious charges, Swerdlow says. Swerdlow has followed human rights in Uzbekistan closely since 2010, when he first served as director of Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia office (which has since closed).

“At the time the atmosphere in the country was deeply repressive,” said Swerdlow. “I documented numerous cases of torture and politically-motivated imprisonment, censorship was near complete, and civil society was muzzled,” said Swerdlow.” Madmarov and countless others were arrested under various extremism-related statutes regardless of evidence, Swerdlow says.

In 2017, after Karimov’s death the previous year, a more pragmatic and reform-minded Uzbekistan government invited Swerdlow and Human Rights Watch into the country and began releasing political prisoners for whom Swerdlow and human rights activists had advocated.

In 2020, the USCIRF commissioned Swerdlow to investigate the country’s population of religious prisoners.

Swerdlow published and presented his report to Congress in October 2021. Among other findings, Swerdlow revealed for the first time that despite reforms and the release of prisoners since 2016, more than 2,000 religious prisoners remain behind bars in Uzbekistan.

Swerdlow’s report also sheds light on 81 religious prisoners whose cases were previously unknown. Profiles of many of those prisoners include details of torture following arrest, an arbitrary lengthening of sentences and the denial of access to counsel. Many prisoners were often pressured, like Madmarov, to write confessions of or seek pardon for the crimes with which they are charged, Swerdlow notes.

“There are thousands of nameless, faceless religious prisoners who we know were largely innocent and not connected to terrorism,” he says. “They need someone to advocate for them.”

A bitter post-Soviet legacy

Swerdlow, who has studied Russian, Uzbek, Georgian and Ukrainian languages and worked for several decades in the sphere of human rights, says that Uzbekistan’s record on human rights, while distinct, shares many characteristics with post-Soviet states that struggled following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many states, including Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, opted for an authoritarian path.

In Uzbekistan, the crackdown on human rights was particularly connected to religion, the practice of which had largely been suppressed during the Soviet era. Following independence, Islam resurged in Uzbekistan — Muslims constitute more than 90% of the population — and the new government feared that political Islam might become a destabilizing force.

After bombings in Uzbekistan’s capital in February 1999, the government started arresting people on a much wider scale, sometimes hundreds at a time. By about 2015, there may have been 10,000 religious prisoners in the country, the largest such population in all the former Soviet states, and possibly the largest in the world, Swerdlow says.

Bringing the lessons home

Habibullah Madmarov (right) and his father, human rights defender Ahmadjon Madmarov, in June 2021, days after Habibullah’s release from prison. (Photo: Steve Swerdlow.)

In the course of his work, Swerdlow travels frequently to Central Asia and wider Eurasia, meeting with former prisoners and current prisoners’ family members, many of whom provided valuable information cataloguing the treatment of their loved ones as well as documentation from their court cases. Madmarov’s father, Ahmadjon, for example, visited his son regularly in prison, writing down not only his son’s accounts of his treatment, but also the narratives of other parents visiting their imprisoned children.

For the USCIRF report, Swerdlow spent months on the ground in Uzbekistan conducting interviews and also meeting with Uzbek government agencies. When the COVID-19 pandemic limited international travel, Swerdlow continued work on the prisoners’ cases from the United States while also teaching several courses on human rights at USC Dornsife. Last fall, as part of his “Human Rights in Post-Soviet Eurasia” (IR 307) course, Swerdlow brought his field work to students.

“One of their signature projects is to choose a political prisoner in Eurasia to write about and to engage in human rights advocacy by learning to tell a compelling story that can be useful,” he says. “Then they are encouraged to offer their work to human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, and especially local activists and groups closest to the cases that can use their work. So, it’s an exercise in human rights in action.”

Swerdlow says his students like being able to work on projects that may tangibly improve other people’s lives. Hearing from current and former prisoners themselves, connecting with them and gaining insight into lives that are often hidden away from the world are all valuable exercises, he adds.

This spring, Swerdlow will lead a Maymester course to Central Asia, offering students the opportunity to meet with human rights defenders, journalists, diplomats and others engaged with human rights work. The course will partner with the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan.

“My students are the next generation of human rights defenders,” says Swerdlow. “I treat them as colleagues and see them as beginners in an incredibly important field of seeking to protect human rights in the United States and globally. I hope these experiences will inspire them to fight for an end to the phenomenon of the political prisoner, or at least, to ensure that political prisoners around the world will always have an advocate.”