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U.S.: Four Muslim Women Honored With Democracy Awards

By Rhonda Wrzenski

Four women from predominantly Muslim countries were honored in Washington this week for work to improve their nations' guarantees of basic democratic liberties. One said her work as an educator in Uzbekistan is ultimately meaningless without these freedoms.

Washington, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Four women, from Uzbekistan, Iran, Algeria, and Somalia, were honored in Washington this week for their service and dedication in the ongoing struggle for human rights and democracy promotion throughout the Muslim world.

Laura Bush, the wife of U.S. President George W. Bush, and Paula Dobriansky, the undersecretary of state for global affairs, were present on 9 July as the National Endowment for Democracy bestowed its Democracy Awards.

The endowment -- a private American group that promotes democratic principles around the world -- said it was honoring these women from predominantly Muslim countries because it wants to call the attention of Western people to the hard work they are doing in countries with weak records on human rights and democracy.

In her opening remarks at the awards presentation, Bush acknowledged the role that these women have played in conjunction with the United States to promote change: "Together, the United States and the allies of democracy like these women are proving that the forces of terror can't stop the momentum of freedom."

One recipient of the Democracy Award was Muborak Tashpulatova, the director of the Tashkent Publication Education Center. In her acceptance speech, Tashpulatova said she believes it is important for Uzbeks to become active in the country's civic affairs and maintain a healthy skepticism about their government.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Islam Karimov has maintained authoritarian rule over Uzbekistan. According to the most recent State Department survey of human rights around the world, opposition parties in Uzbekistan are not permitted and free speech is stifled. And it says Karimov restricts religious freedom in the name of fighting the opposition Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which the government in Tashkent has declared a terrorist organization.

According to Tashpulatova, her efforts to improve education in Uzbekistan can have limited success in an atmosphere of limited human rights. "Civic education is not sufficient if there is no civic environment, if there is no free press, free elections, freedom of assembly, or other democratic, human, or liberal freedoms."

She says education is very important to Uzbeks, especially young Uzbeks, because they must learn to be true citizens, not merely the subjects of a Soviet socialist system, as their parents and grandparents were during seven decades of communist domination. "We have been raised as Soviet people, not as citizens, but we want [our] children to be different."

Another recipient of the award was Mehrangiz Kar, an Iranian lawyer and writer. Since the revolution of 1979, Kar has been active in her nation's movement to promote greater democracy, the rule of law, and greater human rights. Kar once was imprisoned for more than a year for what Iranian courts called her actions against Iran's national security.

In Iran, on the same day that Kar was being honored in Washington, police and paramilitary groups beat many of the estimated 4,000 people who had gathered in Tehran, Iran's capital, in support of pro-democracy student activists. The 9 July demonstration -- which the government had banned -- marked the third anniversary of a raid on students at a university who were seeking democratic reforms.

In her acceptance speech, Kar said little besides calling on Western nations to maintain their support of her people's drive for greater democracy.

A third award recipient was Nadjet Bouda of Algeria, a country whose human rights record was described as poor by the most recent U.S State Department survey of human rights performances around the world. Bouda is the director of SOS Disporus, which is concerned with the hundreds of people who have disappeared during Algeria's civil war.

Bouda said she believes the Algerian government's record on human rights is generally poor, and focuses too much on the military in the fight against the rebels. "Fighting terrorism by arms alone will not bring an end to this deadly violence."

Also honored was Mariam Hussein Mohamed, the founder of the Ismail Jumale Human Rights Organization in Somalia. The East African nation is now without a central government since its last president, Mohamed Siad Barre, fled the country 11 years ago. Its people are often victimized by fighting among warlords, and Mohamed said she believes these warlords must be held accountable for their crimes.

Last year's recipient of the Democracy Award was Mexico's president, Vicente Fox. Prior award winners have come from China, Hong Kong, Kosovo, Russia, and Serbia.