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Uzbekistan: Ambassador Juggles Human Rights Questions

  • Don Hill --> For years now, Uzbekistan has been the target of one-sided criticism over its human rights record -- one-sided because the Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov customarily declines to respond to its critics. Now the Uzbek ambassador to the United States has appeared at a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The ambassador fielded a number of difficult questions.

Prague, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency that monitors human rights development in countries around the world, had a rare opportunity yesterday to put some touchy questions to the customarily reticent government of Uzbekistan.

Uzbek Ambassador to the United States H.E. Abdulaziz Komilov appeared at a Helsinki Commission public hearing to give his country's response to criticisms of its record on torture of prisoners, suppression of religion, and banning of opposition political parties, among other human rights issues.

Komilov denied some charges, acknowledged some problems and spoke loftily of Uzbekistan's intention to emerge someday as what he called "a democracy and open society."

The panel of U.S congressmen addressing Komilov were polite, but their questions were pointed. This question on religious tolerance, by lawmaker Benjamin Cardin, is an example.

"I would like to give you the opportunity to respond to a record that looks like that you are not open to religious tolerance," Komilov said.

Komilov noted that Uzbekistan has registered 2,000 religious organizations, but did not mention those that it has banned. He pointed out that the country now has 1,000 mosques, many times the number that were allowed under Soviet rule. But he distinguished between what he called "private" -- that is, those unsanctioned by the government -- and those that are officially authorized.

He said the country is not opposed to religious freedom, only to false doctrines and illegal financing -- an evident reference to concern over proselytizing by fundamentalist Islamic factions believed to originate in Saudi Arabia.

"First of all, we are not against religions or against religious beliefs, but at the same time we don't want illegal financing of these mosques from some well-known regions. That’s the first reason. And the second is, we have established an Islamic university in Tashkent. It is the only Islamic university for education. If somebody wants to learn -- to study -- Islam, its history, its civilizations, please, we've created all conditions for this. But we don't want our people, especially our young generation, to learn or study Wahabbism, [for example]," Komilov said.

On the outlawing of opposition political parties, the ambassador narrowed a question about a pattern of governmental behavior and responded by characterizing the most recent example as "no problem."

Earlier this week, the government in Tashkent denied registration to the opposition Birlik -- or "Unity" -- party, charging that there were false signatures on registration documents. Birlik denied the charge, but the action stood. This seems to ensure that there will be no party opposed to President Karimov eligible to participate in parliamentary elections at the end of this year.

Komilov said, accurately, that there remain five authorized political parties. What he did not say is that they all back Karimov.

"About the registration, I think you mean the registration of the Birlik Party. The members of this parliament, they have received the conclusion of the Ministry of Justice. And there is no problem, I think, if they [party officials] prepare their documents according to the laws," Komilov said.

Komilov also addressed the question of whether Uzbekistan has slowed reforms as a result of observing the nonviolent revolution in Georgia.

"First of all, I don't think there is some link between the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the situation in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is Uzbekistan. Georgia is Georgia," Komilov said.

On the torture of prisoners, Komilov said, "We have this problem in Uzbekistan, the problem of torture. And we have prepared an action plan. It was adopted by the government. And now, every ministry, every institution, they know what should be done. And I'm sure that if something happens, of course the offenders will be punished. And I think it is absolutely and totally unacceptable mistreating prisoners."

Komilov also described his country's human rights intentions.

"I'd like to repeat once again, that we have our view. We have our future. And we are going to build democracy, not to demonstrate for the United States or for the Helsinki Commission, or to be on a decent level with Georgia. We are building democracy, we are building an open society, for our people, for ourselves first of all," Komilov said.

The hearing did not address recent charges of abuse against a Christian denomination, the Seventh-Day Adventists, nor against demonstrators. In answer to a demand for the release of political prisoners, the ambassador said that many have been released and that more releases are pending.