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Central Asia: Disappointment And Anger As Prison Scandal Cuts Into America's Democratic Image.

  • Daisy Sindelar --> By now, the disturbing photographs documenting U.S. prisoner abuse in Iraq have been seen in nearly all corners of the Earth. In Central Asia, the scandal has drawn virtually no official response from governments reliant on U.S. aid and loathe to draw attention to their own human rights records. But many citizens in the region are angry about the treatment of the Iraqi detainees -- and disappointed that a human rights standard-bearer like the United States could stoop to torture and abuse.

Prague, 14 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "When [the United States] invaded Iraq, they said Saddam Hussein was a dictator. Now we can say that every American soldier in Iraq is a dictator."

That's the response of one resident of the Tajik capital Dushanbe to the mounting scandal over U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghurayb prison.

The abuse -- documented in photographs showing naked Iraqi detainees menaced by dogs, attached to electrical wires, and forced into humiliating or sexually suggestive poses -- has shaken the United States, angered its allies and drawn fierce condemnation from all corners, especially the Arab world.

Its repercussions can be felt as well in Central Asia, where the scandal has provoked an outpouring of anger among many citizens.

The republics in the region strongly backed the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, but from the outset showed little support for the Iraq campaign.

Central Asian leaders have kept their criticism of the war and the emerging prison scandal largely muted, perhaps fearing that sharp words could put their much-needed U.S. aid at risk.

But citizens say the abuse smacks of hypocrisy, coming from a country that acts as the standard-bearer on issues of human rights and dignity.

Duishon Hajji Abdylda Uuli is the president of the Spirituality, Morality, and Conscience Society, an organization for practicing Sunni Muslims in Kyrgyzstan. He was among a small group of activists who gathered on 7 May in a central square in Bishkek to show their disappointment with the United States over the Abu Ghurayb scandal.
"The government will just say: 'What do you want from us? These kinds of things happen in America.'"

"This inhumane torture of the prisoners of war is against international agreements and the Geneva Conventions," Abdylda Uuli said. "It is very paradoxical that soldiers from countries like the United States and Britain -- countries that want to teach other nations about civilization and democracy in the 21st century -- are committing such [shameful] actions."

The Central Asian republics, to varying degrees, are under pressure from the West to democratize everything from media and law enforcement to elections and the judiciary.

But some critics say the United States, which maintains military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, has compromised its moral leverage by boosting financial support and toning down its criticism at a time when reforms are lagging.

A case in point is Uzbekistan, where the president, Islam Karimov, has gained closer ties with the United States despite continued crackdowns on political and religious expression.

Uzbekistan -- which defends its clampdown on independent Muslims as a battle against Islamic extremism -- has been considered a key U.S. ally since 2001, when it allowed American forces to use its Khanabad air base for military operations in Afghanistan.

In return, it receives tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid and only mild rebuke from Washington on its rights record, which includes widespread use of torture in prisons and police detention centers.

Many Uzbeks have long been dismayed to see the United States courting Karimov rather than pressing for the democratic principles they invoke elsewhere in the world.

The prison abuse scandal has only made things worse. To some Uzbeks it now seems that Washington is no better than Tashkent -- and that torture in Uzbek prisons will continue with impunity.

Alimardon Annayev, an independent journalist in Uzbekistan, said he believes that "the actions of American politicians [are] inspiring authoritarian regimes." "If some reports come out tomorrow [about torture in Uzbekistan], the government will just say: 'What do you want from us? These kinds of things happen in America. We're just developing. We've only been independent for 10, 13 years.'"

To a lesser degree, Muslim solidarity is also a factor in the Central Asian reaction to the prison scandal, where religious identity is slowly on the rise after decades of imposed secularity.

Muslims throughout the world were outraged by the prison abuse specifically because many of its methods -- enforced nudity, simulated homosexual acts -- are deeply humiliating in Islamic culture.

Bolatkhan Taizhan, former Kazakh ambassador to Egypt and Malaysia, said the abuse is a natural extension of growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

"I'm not surprised by the report on the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers," Taizhan said. "Because the current opinion of Muslims, especially of Arabs, in America is biased, bad. And that's why this kind of incident happens. One shouldn't be surprised."

Still, as the United States seeks to repair the damage done by the abuse scandal, it has displayed a level of transparency rarely seen in Central Asia or elsewhere in the developing world. Congressional hearings broadcast live on nationwide television. Open apologies from top officials. Military trials for the soldiers implicated in the abuse.

Despite their anger and disappointment, it's a lesson that hasn't been lost on some Central Asians. As one Dushanbe resident explained: "Showing the pictures themselves is an act of democracy. The Americans themselves showed these pictures, the Americans themselves condemned these acts -- and this is a part of democracy."

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)