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Uzbekistan: EBRD Meeting Ends Without Pledge From Karimov To Stop Torture

  • Ron Synovitz

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) today completed its annual meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, amid condemnation of the host country's repressive policies. Criticism about the EBRD's decision to conduct the meeting in Tashkent also intensified after Uzbek President Islam Karimov made a speech yesterday that sidestepped the issue of torture and political repression in his country.

Prague, 5 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is again under attack for holding its annual board meeting in Tashkent.

The fresh wave of criticism at the end of the gathering today follows Uzbek President Islam Karimov's refusal to publicly denounce torture in his country -- a practice that has been documented by teams of UN human rights investigators.

EBRD officials had suggested to journalists before the meeting that Karimov would use his opening speech at the event to promise an end to the use of torture against political prisoners in Uzbek prisons.

Although he did talk about promoting human rights and democratic values, Karimov did not mention the word "torture." He also ignored the findings of reports by the UN Human Rights Commission that document "systematic torture."

Instead, Karimov spoke about the difference in importance that human rights issues have in Central Asia compared to Western countries. And he said that no global corporation or military power should try to dominate Central Asia in order to control its vast deposits of oil and other natural resources.

"Central Asia should not become a place for geopolitical competition or the formation of military and political alliances," Karimov said.

Karimov also used his speech to the EBRD to call for development aid that would benefit all of Central Asia, including Afghanistan. "In this context, it would be useful for the EBRD -- together with the Asian Development Bank, the World and Islamic banks -- to offer assistance in making medium- and long-term programs for developing regional economic ties. This implies the active involvement of Afghanistan, which should become an important and integral part of the Central Asian region," the Uzbek president said.

But Karimov sat silently as Western officials and EBRD leaders raised the issue of torture in Uzbekistan after he had failed to do so. At one point, Karimov removed the headphones that allowed him to hear Russian translations of the English-language speeches.

EBRD President Jean Lemierre said Karimov should have spoken more about the need for progress on human rights and economic reform in his country.

Clare Short, the British minister in charge of international development and the EBRD board's current chairwoman, told the gathering there are still concerns about the lack of respect for freedom of religion in Uzbekistan, as well as "the prevalence of torture" and the failure of the judicial system to protect the rights of citizens.

Karimov smiled later when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev criticized Western states for attacking political rights in Central Asia. Nazarbaev said, "Democracy isn't the beginning of the road" for Central Asian states. "It is the objective."

That view complicates the mission of the EBRD in Central Asia, which operates under a legally binding mandate that requires it to invest only in countries with a proven record of promoting democracy and market economic reforms.

Lemierre said after Karimov's speech that the EBRD will not make any new public sector investments in Uzbekistan until the country takes long overdue action on democratic and economic reforms.

He said the International Monetary Fund and the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe must confirm that the EBRD's recommendations on democratic and economic reforms have been implemented. And he said that issue will not even be considered for another year.

Lemierre specified that Uzbekistan's government must lower its trade barriers, end its control over currency exchange rates, and show a strong commitment to developing the private sector of the Uzbek economy.

He said Tashkent also must support political freedoms, the emergence of nongovernmental organizations, and freedom of the press. Finally, Lemierre called attention to reports by UN investigators that Uzbekistan's political opposition is being silenced by the "systematic phenomenon of torture."

Kudrat Babadjanov, vice president of the banned Independent Organization for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, noted that the meeting ended today without any commitment from Karimov to improve his record on human rights or to end torture -- despite reports he had told EBRD leaders he would do so.

Talib Yakubov, president of the banned Society of Uzbek Human Rights, accused Karimov of "lying from start to finish" to EBRD officials about his commitment on human rights in order to ensure that the meeting went ahead in Tashkent.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called the Tashkent meeting "a failure for the EBRD" in the sense that it did not work as an incentive for progress. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said the EBRD's credibility has been undermined.

Steve Crawshaw, director of the London office of Human Rights Watch, said it is important that Karimov's regime should not be able to use the EBRD's Tashkent meeting as a sign of international endorsement for its policies and practices.

Crawshaw also told RFE/RL he thinks the EBRD was "incredibly naive" to think that it could promote democracy in Uzbekistan by using the prestigious meeting as a kind of "carrot on a stick."

An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" today said there are still signs that Karimov may implement some political reforms. But the paper wrote the EBRD has learned a lesson and will never again commit itself to a venue three years in advance, as it did with the Tashkent meeting.

The "Financial Times" also is urging the EBRD to abandon the idea of using the annual meeting as an incentive to progress -- saying there are better ways to encourage reform laggards. It commented that Karimov should be rewarded with another international summit "only when he has earned it."