Uzbek Leader Becoming Embarrassment to West
by Jim Lobe
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
of the event drew strong statements from both HRW and Amnesty International.
step shows yet again how freedom of expression is curtailed in Uzbekistan,"
said in a statement Friday. "It also highlights the authorities'
policy to prevent any public discussion of the death penalty in
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.
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
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.
seven months later, human rights groups say the EBRD has nothing
to show for its coaxing of Tashkent. If anything, the situation
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2003 One World