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Uzbekistan: Parliament Bolsters Rights Of Ex-Presidents

  • Farangis Najibullah

Uzkek President Islam Karimov has told parliament he will reduce his authorities and give more power to the government and the parliament. At the same time, the Uzbek parliament has approved a new law that gives unprecedented privileges to former presidents and members of their immediate family.

Prague, 1 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Amid international calls for democratic reform and just a few days before the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Tashkent, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has announced he wants to change the constitution to reduce the president's power.

"The wording of Article 89 of our constitution saying that the Uzbek president is the head of state and the executive will be changed. The second part of this article, which says the president is also the chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, will be removed," Karimov said.

Karimov went on to say that the redistribution of powers will "deepen further democratic reforms" in Uzbekistan.

Karimov did not say when the constitution would be changed, but it's not clear the move will have any practical effect. The new chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers would still be appointed by the president.

Karimov's political opponents, however, say they are more concerned with a new law adopted by parliament called the Law on Fundamental Guarantees on the Activities of Uzbek Presidents. Part of the law governs the rights of former presidents once they leave office and includes a provision giving ex-presidents immunity from prosecution. The law reads: "ex-presidents cannot be detained, they cannot be subject to interrogation and search."

Some say the new legislation puts presidents above the law. Otanazar Orifov, the leader of Erk political party, told RFE/RL that presidents should be held responsible for their actions and be brought to justice if they break the law. "The new law would encourage future presidents to commit criminal activities, because they would know that once elected they could get away with anything," Orifov said. "According to the new law, you cannot detain or arrest ex-presidents. You cannot even check or question their activities. They can do whatever they like."

The law also provides for lifelong, state-funded security for former presidents and their immediate family. According to the law, Karimov would also have a right to retain his current presidential residence outside the capital, Tashkent. Future presidents would also be entitled to such a privilege.

Tolib Yakubov, the head of the Uzbek Human Rights Society, told RFE/RL that the law on presidential privileges would not be acceptable to ordinary Uzbeks. "Even the worst dictators in the world have not created such privileges and lifetime guarantees for themselves and their families. I cannot understand the logic of this law. The current residence of the president will be given as private property to him when he retires. When he dies, his widow will receive a special pension, even if she has other sources of income," Yakubov said.

Alimardon Annaev, a Tashkent-based political expert, said the country is too poor to afford presidential residences and lifetime security for every former president. "I think the parliament session, the law, and the speeches will cause a lot of anger among ordinary people, and it may even lead to chaos in the country," he said. "No one cares about living conditions and the well-being of ordinary people. For how long do Uzbek children, old men and women have to work to support their families, for how long do our highly qualified doctors, teachers, and engineers live like beggars? Instead of pampering presidents and ex-presidents, our parliamentarians should think about those problems."

To be sure, Karimov's desire for lifelong protection is not unique among his counterparts in Central Asia. The Kazakh parliament has approved a law on guarantees and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has secured lifetime presidency for himself. Tajikistan is about to amend its constitution to pave the way for incumbent President Immomali Rakhmonov to stay in office for at least 14 more years.

In fact, none of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics has had more than one president since gaining independence in the early 1990s.

Karimov's latest actions come amid speculation the president is in poor health. Karimov had been absent from public life for several months. However, during the past two months, he has been meeting high-ranking visitors, making speeches, and giving press conferences. Uzbek journalists who have been to Karimov's recent press conferences say the president looks to be in good health.

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