Media and rights activists are criticizing an EU decision to lift a travel ban on senior officials in Uzbekistan, saying there are no signs that President Islam Karimov's administration has improved its rights record. They cite several conspicuous examples of recent persecution targeting government critics, including detention and alleged mistreatment, a lengthy prison sentence for an independent journalist, and the expulsion of one of the world's leading human rights advocacy groups.
EU foreign ministers on October 13 cited an "improving" human rights record and described as "encouragement" their decision to allow the travel ban on eight Uzbek officials to expire in November.
The bloc left in place its arms embargo, which was also imposed three year ago, after Uzbek security forces fired on demonstrators in the city of Andijon in May 2005, killing hundreds and forcing hundreds more into exile.
Uzbek journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, who fled into exile after reporting on events in Andijon, tells RFE/RL that easing the EU sanctions sends the wrong message to repressive governments around the world.
"The EU -- by easing the sanctions on Uzbekistan -- has failed not merely to protect [or] to declare its position on human rights in Uzbekistan but also worldwide," Bukharbaeva says, "because it sends a very dangerous message to all dictators around the world that [the international community] can actually cooperate with them without any concern for people or what they're doing in domestic policy [so long as those governments] cooperate with the EU in fields like oil, gas supplies, or military cooperation, like Germany has with Uzbekistan."
Germany has expended considerable effort over the past two years trying to reshape European relations with Central Asia with an eye to future energy supplies to reduce oil and gas dependence on Russia.
The lifting of the post-Andijon travel ban on officials deemed responsible for the bloodshed in eastern Uzbekistan came just three days after an independent journalist and critic of the Uzbek government, Salijon Abdurahmonov, received a 10-year jail sentence for what rights groups call a trumped-up drug charge.
Earlier this year, Nosir Zokir, a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, was arrested and tried for hooliganism -- a charge the reporter denies.
In April, poet and Karimov critic Yusuf Juma was sentenced to five years in prison on a conviction for resisting arrest and insulting police that came less than a six months after he was detained for staging an antigovernment protest and calling on Karimov to step down. Juma's family claims he has been tortured, a practice that international groups say is prevalent in Uzbek prisons.
The EU noted that several human rights activists have been released from prison in recent months.
But media organizations and rights activists counter that there has been no overall improvement -- or even real changes -- in the administration's approach to human rights or free media, with dozens of rights defenders and government critics still in prison. Those who have been released are not allowed to continue their activities, they note.
Uznew.net, an independent website, wrote that the EU "gave the Uzbek government a reward it did not deserve."
Leap Of Faith
"In my opinion, there is no basis to make us think that Uzbekistan is going to take any step to improve the situation," Igor Vorontsov, a researcher on Uzbekistan for Human Rights Watch (HRW) tells RFE/RL. "Therefore, we are deeply disappointed with the [EU] decision. And we think that the situation of those who are behind bars right now, the situation of those who are being persecuted by the government, will worsen, unfortunately."
Vorontsov's group is among the casualties of Tashkent's tough line against critics.
One of the world's most prominent defenders of human rights, HRW has had no representative in Uzbekistan since officials denied Vorontsov accreditation and permission to enter the country in July.
Explaining their decision, officials said Vorontsov is "not familiar with the mentality of the people of the region" and incapable of understanding "the changes and reforms" in Uzbekistan.
HRW said the decision represented "the government's attempts to stop HRW's work in Uzbekistan."
One Piece In Uzbek Puzzle
Uzbek authorities have closed down a number of other foreign NGOs and media outlets in the country, including from the Open Society Institute, BBC, and RFE/RL. They also routinely block access to international and regional websites, and keep a tight lid on what is published inside the country.
Backers of continued punitive measures say they apply important psychological pressure on Tashkent and demonstrate that the EU's patience has its limits.
But many Uzbeks believe that the EU sanctions -- including the visa ban and arms embargo -- have had little impact on the country or its government.
Moreover, not all observers regard the dropping of the travel bans as significant.
Alisher Ilkhamov, a Central Asian expert at the University of London, points out to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that most of those eight officials had already lost their jobs and that the arms ban would remain in effect.
Ilkhamov rejects the view that the EU had opened a new page with respect to Tashkent, and said the West would continue to press its point on Andijon and human rights issues in the years ahead.
The EU has said that Tashkent's release of imprisoned rights defenders and its hosting of an EU-sponsored conference on media freedom were significant steps in the right direction.
EU envoy for Central Asia Pierre Morel has said the EU "is not naive" and acknowledged there were no dramatic improvements in Uzbekistan's rights situation.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report