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February 18, 2004

US Ally Uzbekistan Sends Elderly Mother to Prison, Hard Labor

by Jim Lobe

After torturing her son to death, allegedly by boiling him in water, the government of Washington's closest Central Asian ally, Uzbekistan, has sentenced his 62-year-old mother to six years of hard labor in prison, according to human rights groups, who are calling on the Bush administration to speak out against the continuing persecution of independent Muslims there.

The mother, Fatima Mukhadirova, was sentenced last week on charges of possessing unsanctioned religious literature, membership in a banned religion organization, and "attempted encroachment on the constitutional order" after a closed trial.

Uzbek authorities alleged that she was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), a prohibited Muslim group that promotes the peaceful establishment of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. Currently, some 4,000 alleged members of the group are believed to be in prison on similar charges, although most rights groups estimate the total number of independent Muslims – that is, those who practice outside government-controlled mosques – at more than 6,000.

"Uzbekistan's campaign against religious dissidents continues unabated," said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch (HRW), "and it is time for the U.S. to acknowledge that one of its key allies is systematically abusing the rights of Muslims."

HRW called on the administration to designate Uzbekistan – whose president, Islam Karimov, has ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron hand since before the Soviet collapse – a violator of religious freedom under a special law that authorizes the imposition of sanctions against offending countries.

Mukhadirova is the mother of Muzafar Avozov, a 35-year-old father of four and a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who was tortured to death in August 2002. While prison authorities insisted that Avozov was killed after inmates spilled hot tea on him, a forensic report based on photographs of his corpse studied by the University of Glasgow pathology department found that his body had been immersed in boiling water. His body also showed other serious wounds around the head and neck, and his fingernails were missing.

The most populous of the Central Asian states, Uzbekistan established political and military ties with the United States and west European states after the Soviet collapse, but those ties became considerably closer in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Karimov permitted US intelligence and military forces to use former Soviet military bases to support operations in Afghanistan in late 2001, and the US military has maintained its presence ever since.

Indeed, to underline Uzbekistan's importance, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld had intended to travel to Tashkent to meet with Karimov in early December, but the visit was canceled at the last moment due to bad weather. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman visited with Karimov last November, calling Uzbekistan a "strategic ally of the United States" and offering both food aid and assistance in developing Uzbekistan's agricultural sector.

Karimov has strongly resisted US and European appeals to institute far-reaching political and democratic reforms. In addition to his repression of non-violent independent Muslims, he has outlawed opposition parties, harassed and imprisoned other dissidents, and despite his own promises has failed to stop torture that human rights groups and the UN charge is used routinely against political prisoners, particularly independent Muslims. Scores of dissidents have been executed after sham trials.

After torturing her son to death, allegedly by boiling him in water, the government of Washington's closest Central Asian ally, Uzbekistan, has sentenced his 62-year-old mother to six years of hard labor in prison, according to human rights groups, who are calling on the Bush administration to speak out against the continuing persecution of independent Muslims there.

In a speech last fall before the National Endowment of Democracy (NED), Bush criticized what he said were decades of Western tolerance for repression practiced by western-allied Muslim governments and said that Washington would henceforth promote and encourage democratic government and human rights in Muslim countries. But he omitted any reference to Uzbekistan, an omission quickly seized on by critics both in the US and in the Islamic world as evidence that Bush's rhetoric was hollow.

He also failed to cite Tunisia, another close US ally, whose president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, will be Bush's guest at the White House this week. Ben Ali will be the first leader from the Muslim world to visit Bush since the president's NED speech.

Human rights groups, including HRW, Amnesty International, and Human Rights first, say Bush's willingness to put serious pressure on Ben Ali – whose long-standing intolerance of opposition, particularly Muslim activists, is not unlike Karimov's – to implement wide-ranging reforms will be a major test of how seriously Bush intends to follow up democratic rhetoric.

"Tunisia bills itself as a moderate Muslim nation," said Joe Stork, acting executive director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division. "But there is nothing moderate in the way authorities repress nearly all forms of dissent."

As in Tunisia, rights groups and regional experts have long argued that Karimov's repression has actually radicalized many Uzbek Muslims, some of whom have been associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which Bush linked to al Qaeda shortly after 9/11. These analysts say that nonviolent groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, have come under pressure from their own membership to adopt more-confrontational tactics.

Following the sentencing of Fatima Mukhadirova a spokesman for the group, declared: "By intimidating and silencing old women, Karimov has illustrated his abject failure to counter the rise of political Islam in the region. This failure is yet another incentive for Muslims to intensify their work to remove such tyrants."

The authorities never alleged that Mukhadirova was an IMU member or favored violence against the government. One of the charges for which she was found guilty was that she had help establish "an underground cell of women propagating the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

In fact, it appears that the government moved against her because of the embarrassment she caused by publicizing the circumstances of her son's death, including sending the photographs of his corpse to the British Embassy which then forwarded them on to Glasgow for analysis. The British ambassador in Tashkent, Craig Murray, told the London Guardian after last week's sentence that it was "appalling" and that the chances of her surviving in prison were "very limited."

"She just asked for an independent investigation into the death of her son, something which she is legitimately entitled to," Maisy Weicherdi, a Central Asia researcher for Amnesty, told IRIN news agency in an assessment that was echoed by several local rights groups in Tashkent.

"By arresting Mukhadirova, the authorities show that they can do whatever they want despite pressure from the international community," Vasilya Inoyatoa, head of the local group Ezgulik, also told IRIN. "In doing so, they wanted to teach a lesson to others as well."

Mukhadirova will not be the only family member in prison. Her youngest son is also there on charges of membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to HRW's Denber, who added that her case "is tragic, but unfortunately it's typical in many ways. We have seen hundreds of families decimated by the Uzbek government's campaign to punish independent religious activity."

"Uzbekistan cannot be a good ally for the United States in the struggle against terrorism unless it stops persecuting Muslims for the peaceful expression of their faith," said Tom Malinowski, HRW's Washington director.

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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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