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Uzbekistan: Rights Groups Urge Stronger U.S. Pressure On Karimov

  • Andrew Tully --> For a third time, the United States has criticized Uzbekistan's government for its handling of protests on 13 May in the eastern city of Andijon. But human rights organizations say the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush must go further to bring pressure on Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Washington, 18 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Bush administration's position is that only democratic reform will improve conditions in Uzbekistan.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters yesterday in Washington that if stability is Karimov's goal, it is best achieved through reform. He said improving civil society in Uzbekistan also will protect it better against terrorism.

The best way for Karimov to implement democratic reforms, Boucher said, is to work openly with other governments.

"There needs to be transparency, there need to be reforms and there needs to be international involvement to find out what happened to support the reform process if Uzbekistan is ever to achieve the kind of stability and the kind of integration the greater community that we all want," Boucher said.

Saying that is not enough, according to Allison Gill, the Uzbekistan researcher for the New York-based advocacy organization Human Rights Watch. Gill told RFE/RL that the United States should not wait for Karimov to reach out to the world community. Instead, she says, Washington should bring heavy pressure on him to institute the reforms that Boucher spoke of -- just as it did with other former Soviet states.

After all, Gill says, Uzbek forces open fire on 13 May on a crowd of civilians in Andijon. She says that some of the demonstrators may have been involved in freeing inmates of the local prisoners, but most were unarmed.

"How does that square with President Bush's stated policy of spreading democracy/" Gill asked. "Why is democracy good enough for the Ukrainians and the Georgians, but not for the Uzbeks? The U.S. needs to engage very, very firmly with the Uzbek government on this and condemn these abuses for what they are."

Gill says the problem is that Karimov is one of the early U.S. allies in the war on terrorism. But Karimov says those who don't practice a state-sponsored version of Islam are Islamic extremists, she says, and he accuses all his political opponents of being terrorists.

"Terrorism is a very convenient excuse for the Karimov government -- and, in fact, for the U.S. government -- to justify the response to protests," Gill said. "It seems to have been largely peaceful protesters expressing grievances against the government, mostly economic grievances. They called for justice, they called for an end to poverty and an end to economic hardship."
"The basic issue here is really the response to the challenges being something that generates even more problems, rather than solving them." - Walker

By all accounts, Gill says, the vast majority of the demonstrators in Andijon on 13 May were ordinary people -- not political activists, let alone terrorists -- who had gathered because they were told Karimov himself was coming, and they wanted to air their grievances to him.

Instead, she said, they were met by truckloads of Uzbek security personnel who opened fire, killing an as-yet unknown number of people.

Christopher Walker, the director of studies for Freedom House in New York, says Karimov's decision to use force against the demonstrators also may have been counterproductive. He told RFE/RL that harsh action may make his opponents feel they have no choice but to escalate violence themselves.

"I think the application of extreme state force against his own citizens really does run the risk of creating even more problems in the society. The basic issue here is really the response to the challenges being something that generates even more problems, rather than solving them," Walker said.

Walker says there are many reforms that Karimov could pursue, but the first -- and perhaps the easiest -- is to allow a free press. He says this would not only improve day-to-day life in Uzbekistan, but also help with crises like the one the country faces now.

"At a very basic level, this information blockade in Uzbekistan is one of the features that really hinders the society's development -- the ability of average people to know what's going on in their own country. And certainly in the current crisis context [it is] extremely problematic to learn precisely what is occurring relative to these events in eastern Uzbekistan," Walker said.

Walker says the U.S. response to this crisis has so far taken the right direction, but Karimov will respond only with further pressure. He says that pressure should be brought by the international community, led by a more determined United States.

Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.

See also:

What Really Happened On Bloody Friday?

Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs

Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon

Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions

Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'