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Central Asia Report: August 29, 2002

29 August 2002, Volume 2, Number 33

PROTESTORS RALLY IN TASHKENT. Two antigovernment protests in a single week were staged outside the Justice Ministry in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, a remarkable occurrence in the tightly controlled country. Even more remarkably, police allowed the first demonstration on 20 August to proceed peacefully without attempting to interfere. Their leniency made some analysts hopeful that President Islam Karimov's regime might be taking steps toward improving its poor human rights record. Such optimism was dashed when the second rally on 27 August was summarily broken up and two activists were forcibly committed to psychiatric hospitals.

On 20 August, about a dozen human rights activists picketed the Justice Ministry to complain about living conditions in Uzbekistan. They called on authorities to observe civil rights and stop persecuting political and religious dissidents, AP reported. Furthermore, they protested against corruption and abuses by law-enforcement agencies and the courts, and carried placards demanding a meeting with Karimov to discuss these shortcomings. Justice Ministry officials informed the protestors that they were not in a position to take action on their demands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 August 2002). Although dozens of police and security officers observed the scene, they let the demonstration run its course. It lasted most of the day, AP reported, making it the longest public protest ever held in Uzbekistan.

Another special feature of the demonstration was that the participants were all ethnic Russians. Some told AP that they were trying to draw attention to discrimination against the Russian minority in Uzbekistan. Others explained to RFE/RL that their mission was a broader, more principled defense of human rights for everyone in the country irrespective of ethnicity. Yet, even among activists in Uzbekistan, a perception remains that Russians are less interested in improving conditions for all of Uzbekistan's citizens than they are in bettering their own lot (see "Uzbekistan: Little Sympathy Shown For Plight Of Russians,", 22 August 2002).

Presumably encouraged by police passivity on 20 August, a similar protest rally gathered outside the Justice Ministry on 27 August. This ended much differently, however. It was staged by the nongovernmental Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan to demonstrate against alleged state corruption and police abuse, RFE/RL's Uzbek service reported. Its members raised signs demanding that Karimov put an end to human rights violations. But within minutes, several men in civilian clothes believed to be government agents swooped on the protesters and forced five of them into unmarked cars without license plates. Uniformed police denied that they were involved. Tashkent's deputy chief of police, Zukhritdin Babakalanov, said his officers were under orders not to break up peaceful protests, AP said on 27 August. If this is true, it raises questions about policy coordination between the Interior Ministry and various state-security agencies. Police also indicated that they did not know who the plainclothes intruders were or where they were taking their prisoners. That, too, raises questions: What sort of police force is it that passively looks on while citizens are bundled into cars by unidentified assailants?

Reuters and AP reported on 28 August that three of the five detainees were released on the day they were arrested, although one of them, Olga Krasnova, told journalists that she was severely beaten while in custody. The other two, Elena Urlaeva and Larisa Vdovina, were held overnight at a police station. On the following day, they were incarcerated in mental hospitals.

For Urlaeva, a prominent dissident with the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, it was the second time she has been committed a psychiatric ward. In April 2001, she was locked up in Tashkent's main mental hospital in a move that Human Rights Watch called at the time "a throwback to the ugliest Soviet repression against the dissident movement of the 1970s" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April 2001). Despite being pronounced mentally sound by an examining physician, Urlaeva remained in the ward until June 2001, when she was discharged under pressure from international rights groups and diplomats. She subsequently appealed a court verdict requiring her to undergo psychiatric treatment, which she said was a political decision prompted by her antigovernment activism. She lost the appeal last month.

GRAND TOUR OF THE REGION BY U.S. GENERAL FRANKS. U.S. General Tommy Franks, who as head of U.S. Central Command is in charge of missions in Central Asia and the Middle East, concluded a weeklong tour of Central Asia that took him to each of the countries in the area, including Afghanistan. There were no surprises, as he reiterated the by-now-familiar message that Washington has a long-term commitment to the region. But the U.S. engagement is not homogeneous across Central Asia, and Franks offered glimpses of how Washington's strategic interests may be shifting.

Franks began his trip in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on 21 August, where he doled out customary thanks to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for supporting the international struggle against terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2002). Franks then met Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev for wide-ranging talks about regional security, reinforcing the infrastructure of Kazakhstan's western military district, and developing its mobile forces, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The possibility that Astana might buy American weapons was raised. There was also agreement on increasing the number of Kazakh servicemen undergoing training in the United States. But as pointed out on 21 August, in both the fields of military training and arms sales Moscow has already gotten the jump on the Pentagon. It has offered to sell weapons to Kazakhs at preferential prices and to admit almost 400 officer cadets to Russian military academies for free in 2002 and 2003, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 11 June. Washington appears to be moving now to counter that influence, while Kazakhstan plays one against the other. To consolidate a U.S.-Kazakh military relationship, Defense Minister Altynbaev has been invited to make an official visit to Washington later this year, Interfax reported on 21 August.

Franks' talks with Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev in the capital, Bishkek, on 22 August concentrated on expressions of gratitude for cooperation, according to Kabar news agency. The subject of how long Western forces might remain at Manas air base outside Bishkek did not come up, Franks told journalists. Meanwhile, he praised Kyrgyzstan's role as one of the "37 front-line states" of the U.S.-led counterterrorist coalition, which consists of some 70 countries in all, the news agency said.

Franks made his fifth visit to Uzbekistan on 23 August, AP and local news sources reported. Following discussions with President Islam Karimov and Uzbek Defense Minister Qodyr Ghulomov about the fight against international terrorism, religious extremism, and drug trafficking, Franks indicated that America's military ties with Central Asia will continue to expand. "I would expect in the future -- basing and so forth notwithstanding -- that we will see a continuing growth in military relationships between our armed forces and forces here in Central Asia," he said, as quoted by AP. This message was reinforced by an 11-member delegation of U.S. congressmen that also happened to be in Tashkent on 23 August and met with Karimov and Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov. In the words of the delegation's leader, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Republican, Michigan), "The United States is in Central Asia to stay. We are committed to rebuilding Afghanistan. We are committed to continued economic and political reform in Uzbekistan," AP reported. More generally, Hoekstra said that Washington's policy in Central Asia is aimed at promoting positive change throughout the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2002).

After a one-day visit with Afghan leaders in Kabul, Franks arrived in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on 26 August, where he met with President Imomali Rakhmonov to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. "There is a much better sense of security and stability in this region than...a year ago," said Franks, as quoted by AP. Meanwhile, Rakhmonov argued that peaceful conditions in Afghanistan will not be ensured unless the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force is extended outside Kabul, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Franks also repeated his earlier statement that he is convinced that Djuma Namangani, leader of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, is dead, although he added that he has no evidence to prove it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2002).

Tajikistan has granted coalition forces permission to use its airspace but has hosted few U.S. troops and not contracted any basing agreement with the Pentagon. Nevertheless, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher revealed at a daily press briefing that on 27 August Tajikistan's government agreed in writing that American servicemen stationed there would not be subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), VOA news said. Tajikistan is the first country in the former USSR to agree to such an exemption (and only the fourth country in the world). Boucher said that Washington is especially looking to conclude bilateral immunity deals in "the most likely places that U.S. troops are going to be present or deployed or passing through. So certainly places where U.S. personnel are not likely to ever be located in the foreseeable future are not high on the list," according to the U.S. State Department transcript. Whether the agreement is thus aimed forward at a day when U.S. troops might play a more active role in Tajikistan, "present or deployed or passing through," is open to speculation. Meanwhile, in a bid to maintain its influence in the region, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 25 August that Moscow is considering establishing a training program for Afghan officers in Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported. The course could be held at the headquarters of the 201st Russian motorized rifle division in Dushanbe, Ivanov suggested.

Franks wrapped up his tour of the region on 27 August with a stop in Turkmenistan, whose official neutral status has kept it aloof from any military participation in the antiterrorist coalition. But Franks thanked President Saparmurat Niyazov for helping channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through Turkmenistan, ITAR-TASS and Turkmen television reported. Furthermore, Franks said Washington is prepared to offer training for border guards and technical help in combating drug smuggling across Turkmenistan's long and porous border with Afghanistan.