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Central Asia: Human Rights Activists Urge Tougher U.S. Stance

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Uzbek human rights activists told a U.S. Congressional body yesterday that they are alarmed by the deteriorating human rights records of Central Asian states since they became allies in Washington's war on terrorism. They were joined by a U.S. lawmaker in urging America to take a tougher stance on human rights abuses in Central Asia.

Washington, 29 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leading Central Asian human rights activists and an American lawmaker condemned what they call growing human rights abuses among Washington's new antiterrorism allies and urged the White House to take action.

Four human rights activists recounted stories of torture, rape, and false accusations against political prisoners in Central Asia yesterday in testimony before the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Congressional body better known as the Helsinki Commission.

Its chairman, Representative Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), said the administration of President George W. Bush must act more forcefully to protest human rights abuses by governments such as Uzbekistan, which has become a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism.

"I do think that most Americans would be shocked to learn that some of the allies that we've embraced in our fight against Al-Qaeda and worldwide terrorism are at the same time torturers and perverts, who not only permit but use as a means for extracting confessions horrific beatings, coupled with rapes and threats of rape against family members," Smith said.

All four of the Uzbek witnesses told the hearing that human and political rights are deteriorating across Central Asia, whose governments are using the war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on opponents.

Conversely, they say Washington, which has established military bases in some Central Asian countries for use in its war in Afghanistan, has lessened its pressure over human rights in Central Asia since the September terrorist attacks.

Atanzar Arifov, a former political prisoner, is general secretary of Uzbekistan's opposition Erk party. Arifov said that just before the attacks, five Uzbek political prisoners appeared set to be released by authorities following extensive pressure by Washington. He said the prisoners were jailed on trumped-up charges and include renowned writer Mamadali Makhmudov and three brothers of Mohammad Solih, Erk's exiled leader.

But after 11 September, Arifov said, progress on the case stalled. Arifov said he has concluded that the U.S. has significantly lessened its pressure on authoritarian Uzbek President Islam Karimov over human rights abuses: "We think that it is necessary to restore this pressure. Why was the processing of releasing opposition leaders stopped?"

Arifov then appealed to Karimov, urging him to open up Uzbekistan's political system to democracy and to stop the widespread torture of political prisoners, which Arifov said is described in a letter from prison by the writer Makhmudov: "One shudders while reading this letter. He was hanged upside down. They burned his body with cigarette butts. They threatened to rape his wife and daughters -- all the while trying to make him sign his own confession of having participated in terrorist acts in Tashkent [in 1999]."

U.S. Congressman Smith said he brought up the case of these five prisoners with Karimov when the Uzbek leader visited Washington in March. Smith said he told Karimov he will fight to make any future U.S. aid to Tashkent -- or the possibility of Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or PNTR, status -- conditional on human rights reforms.

"[My] sense was that he was very well aware of those cases [and he] gave a cursory, 'We'll look into it.' But my comment back to him was, 'Going forward, when we look at PNTR, and when we look at any additional economic cooperation between the two countries, these cases and others like it will be paramount, central, to whether or not that relationship goes forward,'" Smith said.

Abdusalom Ergashev heads the Ferghana branch of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, which recently became the first-ever such organization to be officially registered in Uzbekistan. Ergashev said he is optimistic about his region's future.

He said that unless economic and political reform takes place, the recent violence in Kyrgyzstan -- where police fired on and killed five people protesting the detainment of an opposition leader in the Jalalabad region -- is a harbinger of further social unrest.

"I believe that regional poverty, as well as high unemployment in that particular region of Uzbekistan, can lead to serious disturbances and unrest by the population," Ergashev said, "similar to the events that took place in the Jalalabad region of Kyrgyzstan."

Pulat Akhunov is director of the Central Asian Association of Sweden and a former political prisoner. He made this observation about the recent events in Kyrgyzstan: "One of the recent developments in Jalalabad is the unwillingness [of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev] to give up power."

Despite warming ties with Central Asian states, the White House and State Department insist they will continue to press for improvements in human rights and economic and political reforms. Indeed, the State Department has said stronger ties have improved the general dialogue with the Central Asian states, making it easier to discuss human rights abuses with them.

But Smith made a strong appeal to the leaders of his own Republican Party -- the Bush administration. He urged it to take a much more aggressive stance on human rights in Central Asia.

"We need zero tolerance for torture, and it seems to me it starts at the highest level with President Bush. He, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, our speaker [of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert], and the majority leader on the Senate side have to speak with one voice, that we will not stand idly by -- even if you are partners with us in fighting terrorism -- while you repress, rape, and butcher your own people," Smith said.

Smith said that if Washington relaxes its position on human rights, it will come to be seen as a friend of dictatorships across Central Asia.