With Friends Like Uzbekistan ...
week's outburst of apparently Islamist-related violence, which has
killed more than 40 people in two major cities in Uzbekistan in
the past three days, could spur renewed attention to the strategically
located Central Asian country's deplorable human rights record.
a new report whose release coincided with the bloodiest day yet
in three days of bombings and gun battles, New York-based Human
Rights Watch (HRW) charged that the government of President
Islam Karimov had arrested and tortured thousands of nonviolent
Muslim dissidents who practiced their faith outside state-controlled
mosques, and called on Uzbekistan's Western allies, of which the
United States is the most important, to apply real pressure on Tashkent
to improve its human rights performance.
Uzbek government is conducting a merciless campaign against peaceful
Muslim dissidents," said Rachel Denber, the acting director
of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division. "The scale and brutality
of the operations against independent Muslims makes it clear that
these are part of a concerted and tightly-orchestrated campaign
of religious persecution."
the 319-page report as well as the violence in Tashkent and Bukhara
pose major dilemmas for Washington and other Western donors that
have treated the Karimov government as a close ally in the US "war
the aftermath of the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and
the Pentagon, Karimov provided Washington with access to strategic
bases from which US intelligence and military operations were run
during and after the US-led effort to oust the Taliban government
in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001. Hundreds of US troops and
intelligence officers are still operating from the Khanabad air
base, which also acts as a supply facility for US operations in
exchange, President George W Bush publicly denounced the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as an affiliate of al-Qaeda and sharply
increased military, security and economic assistance to Karimov's
government. Two years ago, Karimov, who also ruled over Uzbekistan
when it was still a Soviet republic, was received by Bush himself
at the White House, and Tashkent has since become a regular pilgrimage
site for senior administration officials, most recently Pentagon
chief Donald Rumsfeld, who visited last month.
and other Western countries have long warned Karimov that his failure
to respect human rights and implement serious political and economic
reforms, and his repression of independent Muslims in particular,
could destabilize the country. But he has responded mainly with
only token gestures, while insisting that any far-reaching relaxation
of his control would likely lead to a major upsurge of terrorism
by the IMU and another, much larger group, the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which
has called for the replacement of his regime with a Central Asian
caliphate, albeit by nonviolent means.
a result, the Bush administration has tried to walk a tightrope
with Karimov by, on the one hand, condemning human rights abuses
and urging reforms, and on the other by supporting him as a strategic
ally in the "war on terrorism."
balancing act reminiscent of US alliances with anti-Soviet autocrats
during the Cold War has been on display in just the past week,
with the White House expressing its solidarity with Tashkent on
Monday by declaring: "These attacks only strengthen our resolve
to defeat terrorists wherever they hide and strike, working in close
cooperation with Uzbekistan and our other partners in the global
war on terror," while on Tuesday, the State Department stressed
that "more democracy is the best antidote to terror."
government has blamed the violence, which has reportedly included
at least two suicide bombings, apparently by women, on the work
of "international terror," as well as members of Hizb
ut-Tahrir, the group that, according to the HRW report, has been
the principal target of the regime's brutality and repression.
series of detailed eyewitness reports by a pseudonymous EurasiaNet
correspondent with access to radio communications by the state security
forces, stressed that the fighting may be the work of a "homegrown
insurgency, rather than a strike by international terrorists,"
with many people in the streets asserting that the attacks were
in response to police abuses.
HRW report also lends credence to the notion, as suggested in its
Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan,"
that the revolt could indeed be homegrown, given the nature and
extent of Karimov's repression. It estimates that some 7,000 independent
Muslims are currently in prison and subject to torture and other
abuses. "Uzbekistan cannot hide behind the global war on terrorism
to justify religious repression," said Denber.
particularly notorious case came to light last year when Fatima
Mukhadirova, a shopkeeper, persuaded the British Embassy in Tashkent
to investigate the August 2002 death of her son, Muzafar Avozov,
in prison based on photographs of his corpse. An independent examination
carried out by the University of Glasgow concluded that the father
of four and member of Hizb ut-Tahrir had died after being immersed
in boiling water, although the photographs also showed that he suffered
serious wounds around the head and neck and that his fingernails
her efforts, Mukhadirova was herself sentenced to six years of hard
labor, although she was released after a major international outcry
on the eve of Rumsfeld's visit.
however, was hardly the last to suffer torture, which the HRW report
describes as a routine action against detainees and prisoners in
Uzbekistan but whose practice is particularly severe against independent
Muslims in order to force confessions or testimony against others.
The report documents 10 deaths from torture over the past five years,
although that toll excludes cases for which there is no direct evidence,
such as the death under suspicious circumstances of a 44-year-old
independent Muslim prisoner, Abdurahman Narzullaev, just two weeks
ago after he participated in a prison hunger strike.
on five years of research throughout Uzbekistan, including some
200 interviews with victims and their relatives, as well as other
witnesses, human rights defenders and government officials, the
report notes that independent Muslims are arrested on vague charges
of "subversion," "encroachment on the constitutional
order," or "anti-state activities," tried "in
grossly unfair proceedings," and routinely sentenced to up
to 20 years in prison. Those targeted for arrest include people
whom the state deems "too pious," a term that may include
those who pray at home or wear a beard.
report details cases of numerous prisoners who were tortured by
methods such as beatings, rape, electric shock, asphyxiation, suspension
from wrists or ankles, and burning with cigarettes or lit newspapers.
regime has also used mass public denunciations of the families of
independent Muslims in which they are paraded before their neighbors
to be denounced as "traitors" or "enemies of the
state" in demonstrations that recall the Stalin period. In
addition, police are known to arrest and torture family members
of alleged "extremists" or "Wahhabis" in order
to gain their surrender.
report noted Western countries, including the US, have conditioned
some of Uzbekistan's aid on improvements in the human rights situation.
Denber called on them to strongly denounce such abuses and withhold
aid pending substantial progress.
is shameful that the international community has stood by and allowed
this [repression] to continue," she said. "If Uzbekistan's
allies want the world to believe that they are against the persecution
of Muslim dissidents, they are going to have to take some action
to show where they stand."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service