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Uzbekistan: Human Rights Advocates Urge Bush To Confront Karimov

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who is due to meet President George W. Bush in Washington next week, recently allowed the registration of a human rights group -- the first one in his country. But human rights advocates told a U.S. congressional body yesterday that the move appears to be a token gesture timed for Karimov's visit -- and urged Bush to push hard on human rights when he meets Karimov, who has become a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Washington, 8 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leading Western human rights advocates are urging President George W. Bush to confront Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, on what they called his atrocious human rights record when they meet in Washington next week.

One British-based and two U.S. human rights promoters urged Washington to take concrete steps to improve human rights in Central Asia at a briefing yesterday on U.S. policy before the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- better known as the Helsinki Commission.

The experts -- including Nina Shea, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is mandated by the U.S. Congress -- said the government repression in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan risked unleashing a backlash in Central Asia and turning the region into a breeding ground for future terrorists.

But much of their criticism was focused directly at Karimov, who is scheduled to meet with Bush on 12 March and has become a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism despite having what the U.S. State Department recently called a "very poor" human rights record.

In particular, Shea and the other panelists condemned what they called Karimov's widespread persecution of religious believers. Shea said the meeting is a key chance for Bush to confront Karimov, particularly on his alleged use of the war against terrorism as a blanket excuse to crack down on Muslims in general.

"The upcoming visit to the United States by President Karimov is an opportunity for the [Bush] administration to demonstrate its commitment to advancing human rights during the campaign against terrorism by pressing for human rights improvements in Uzbekistan," Shea said.

Although the war in Afghanistan has opened up new avenues of cooperation between the U.S. and the Central Asian states -- including U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan -- Washington has insisted it will continue to press these countries to improve their human rights records.

Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner, in presenting the State Department's new annual review of human rights and democracy around the world on 4 March, said the cooperation from the war on terrorism will allow America to effect positive change in human rights in places like Central Asia.

But yesterday's panelists were cautious about that possibility. For example, they said Karimov's recent registration of a local human rights group -- a historic first for Uzbekistan -- was probably n-o-t the result of U.S. pressure, as some have said, but rather a public relations move timed to coincide with his trip to Washington.

Wayne Merry is an analyst at the private American Foreign Policy Council and a former State Department and Pentagon official who served in Central Asia and Moscow in the early 1980s and early 1990s. Merry compared the registration of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan this week to the old Soviet ruse of releasing a token dissident or two from prison just before a summit with Washington.

"I think the approval of a new non-governmental organization for human rights is purely a sop to the U.S. government on the eve of Karimov's visit to Washington."

Merry said that Central Asia was devastated economically in the 1990s and is probably worse off now than it was in the late Leonid Brezhnev era of the early 1980s.

He said the region inherited Soviet-style police states with Soviet-minded leaders that recalled many regimes in Africa, with Turkmenistan -- whose leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, has declared himself president-for-life -- even posing the possibility of "dynastic perpetuation."

Merry said many Central Asian leaders, such as Karimov, have learned to talk soothingly to the West in the style of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but act more like Joseph Stalin at home. He said Karimov has jailed thousands of Muslims simply because they do not follow the state version of Islam. Merry said the fate of many others is often worse: "The use of the death penalty [in Uzbekistan] is so flagrant that the actual numbers are treated as a state secret, indicating that the statistics are so bad they're not even worth falsifying."

Lawrence Uzzell is the director of the Oxford-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Uzzell chided the State Department for not using the word "persecution" in discussing religious issues in its human rights report on Uzbekistan. He added that Karimov's policy of punishing believers risks producing a generation of extremists bent on revenge and bringing him down.

He said that in this context, Washington may end up in an uncomfortable position if it embraces Karimov too warmly. Uzzell made this observation: "We have a regime there which is waging war not just on extremists, but on all serious Muslim believers. And the more Washington embraces that regime, the easier it is for the Islamic militants -- not just in Uzbekistan, but around the world -- to argue that the West is fighting not just terrorism right now, but Islam as a whole."

In its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. government has gone out of its way to state that it is not aimed at Islam at all, but merely extremists who have distorted the religion. Muslim extremists such as Osama bin Laden, who the U.S. blames for the 11 September terrorist attacks, have sought to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world, saying Washington is waging war on all of Islam.

To that end, Uzzell said Karimov's policies would only increase the likelihood of further clashes between the West and Islamic extremists. And he added that by creating a backlash, Karimov could spell his own undoing -- much like the Shah of Iran, who fell in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Shea of the Commission on International Religious Freedom agreed. She said: "While the Commission acknowledges the threat of terrorism to the Uzbek government, virtually all observers, and many U.S. government officials as well, contend that the current government's extremely repressive policies are actively contributing to the growth of and popular support for radicalized groups there that the campaign against terrorism is attempting to counter."

Shea urged Washington not to accept rhetoric and token gestures from Karimov, but demand concrete steps on human rights, including releasing all unjustly imprisoned people. She said if such issues are not taken up with Karimov next week, it will send a message to the region that the U.S. accepts his repressive policies.

She concluded by saying that the Commission is also gravely concerned about Turkmenistan and has formulated recommendations on policy toward Ashgabat to be submitted to the U.S. government.

Until religious freedom there "improves significantly," she said the U.S. should halt any nonhumanitarian aid to Turkmenistan and suspend any state visits between the two countries.

Finally, Shea said the U.S. should raise the topic of Turkmen religious rights violations before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and sponsor a resolution to create a UN special rapporteur to probe religious rights abuses under Turkmen President Niyazov.