Uzbek Leader Becoming Embarrassment to West
by Jim Lobe
December 9, 2003

President Bush's recent vows to pursue a "forward strategy of freedom" in the Islamic world are in the spotlight as a close ally, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, comes under attack by human rights groups.

Despite Western pressure, Karimov has outlawed opposition parties, harassed and imprisoned dissidents, and, despite his own promises, failed to take meaningful steps to stop the routine use of torture against perceived opponents. Scores of dissidents have been executed after sham trials.

Karimov's most recent display of resistance to opening meaningful political space for the opposition – or even for civil-society groups – came late last week when his government blocked the holding of a conference on the death penalty in Tashkent.

The conference, planned for Dec. 5 by a group called "Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture," could not be held, authorities told participants the day before, because the sponsoring organization had not been properly registered with the government. Cosponsors included New York-based Freedom House, which is close to the Bush administration.

In fact, the group had submitted a registration application to the government last January, but had not received any reply – despite a law that requires a decision within two months.

Cancellation of the event drew strong statements from both HRW and Amnesty International.

"This step shows yet again how freedom of expression is curtailed in Uzbekistan," Amnesty said in a statement Friday. "It also highlights the authorities' policy to prevent any public discussion of the death penalty in the country."

HRW noted that the government has a long history of refusing to register independent human rights or other issue-oriented groups, often treating their activities as illegal.

Karimov's intransigence is embarrassing not only to the Bush administration, which continues to embraces Karimov as a "strategic ally" in Washington's anti-terrorism campaign, but to Western Europe as well.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which held its annual meeting in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent last May, has warned that it would cut its funding to the former Soviet republic unless Karimov met certain "benchmarks" toward human-rights and political reform, including taking concrete steps to end rampant torture of prisoners; registering civil-society groups; and ensuring greater freedom for the media and opposition parties.

But seven months later, human rights groups say the EBRD has nothing to show for its coaxing of Tashkent. If anything, the situation has deteriorated.

"It should be clear to everyone by now that quiet diplomacy simply doesn't work in a country like Uzbekistan," said Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). "The EBRD would do better speaking out about the alarming lack of progress in human rights, and publicly calling on the Uzbek government to move forward with the necessary reforms."

One of the benchmarks set by the EBRD for continued lending to Uzbekistan was that the government permit independent civil society groups to register and function freely. The Bank said it would have one year to comply before sanctions were taken. "Unfortunately, this is just another example in a long list of setbacks for fulfilling the human rights benchmarks set by the EBRD earlier this year," said Denber. "The international community must firmly and publicly condemn this appalling move and make clear that this type of behavior will seriously affect their relations with Uzbekistan."

While both the U.S. and the European Union (EU) had courted Uzbekistan, the most populous of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, during the 1990s, its strategic importance emerged more forcefully after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

US intelligence and military forces used former Soviet military bases in Uzbekistan to mount their campaign to oust the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan, and have maintained a presence in the predominantly Muslim country.

In recognition of Uzbekistan's importance, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld was scheduled to visit Karimov in Tashkent to address growing concern over the recent deployment of Russian fighter-bombers at a base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan last week when he traveled to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The visit, canceled at the last moment due to bad weather over Tashkent, highlighted both continuing US interest in Uzbekistan and the growing rivalry in the region between Russia and the US. Both powers now have bases in Kyrgyzstan, and the recent ouster of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in favor of a more pro-Washington leadership appears to have prompted growing concern in the Kremlin about US objectives in the region.

Karimov also hosted Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman just last month. Veneman praised the country's leadership, describing Uzbekistan as a "strategic ally of the United States" and offering both food aid and assistance in developing Uzbekistan's agricultural sector. She did not speak publicly about the human rights situation in the country.

Karimov, one of a number of former Soviet leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia who have maintained their hold on the country more than a decade after the Soviet collapse, is also considered one of those who are most opposed to political and democratic reform.

Despite Western pressure, he has outlawed opposition parties, harassed and imprisoned dissidents, and, despite his own promises, has failed to take meaningful steps to stop torture that is routinely used against perceived opponents, particularly Muslims who practice their religion outside of state-sponsored mosques. Scores of dissidents have been executed after sham trials.

Yet in a recent speech before the National Endowment of Democracy (NED), in which he criticized what he said were decades of Western tolerance for repression practiced by western-allied Muslim governments, President Bush omitted any reference to Uzbekistan, an omission that was quickly seized on by critics both in the US and in the Islamic world as evidence that Bush's rhetoric was hollow.

Human rights groups and regional experts have long argued that Karimov's repressive measures continue to radicalize many Uzbeki Muslims, some of whom have been associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which Bush himself linked to al Qaeda before the Afghan campaign, and other armed groups.

Rights groups have also expressed deep concern about the fate of a prominent human rights activist and journalist, Ruslan Sharipov, who was sentenced to four years in prison in September on what critics say were trumped-up charges of homosexuality. Sharipov is believed to have been beaten and tortured while in custody. His public defender was abducted and severely beaten by men dressed in camouflage uniforms in late August.

In late September, the government also blocked a congress of the opposition Erk Democratic Party, whose activists around the country had reported an increase in harassment.

(One World)

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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