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Pamela Spratlen, the U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan

The Uzbek Justice Ministry has officially registered a local branch of the Washington-based American Councils for International Education (ACIE), the first nongovernmental organization to be accredited in Uzbekistan for more than 10 years.

Uzbek Deputy Justice Minister Akbar Tashkulov presented the certificate of registration of the Uzbek branch of the ACIE to U.S. Ambassador Pamela Spratlen, the news website reported on August 30.

American Councils implements U.S. educational programs and exchanges across the world.

At a press briefing in Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the move “demonstrates the growing strategic partnership between the United States and Uzbekistan, and the government of Uzbekistan’s commitment to meaningful reform and international engagement.”

Nauert added that it also represents the two countries’ “strengthening of people-to-people ties,” saying American Councils will “open up many opportunities for academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and Uzbekistan.”

The Uzbek ambassador to Washington, Javlon Vakhabov, also hailed the development in a tweet, saying, “The first U.S.-connected NGO ever registered in Uzbekistan since 2006. My congrats.”

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has taken steps to implement reforms at home and improve ties with the outside world following more than a quarter-century of iron-fisted rule under his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Mirziyoev became interim president after Karimov's death was announced in September 2016 and was elected president in a tightly controlled vote in December 2016.

In September 2017, a Human Rights Watch delegation also visited Uzbekistan, seven years after its representatives were banned from working inside the Central Asian country.

In May, an Amnesty International delegation traveled to Uzbekistan in what the London-based human rights watchdog described as the first such visit to the country in 14 years.

Supporters of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Islamist political party Tehreek-i-Labaik, joined a march to Islamabad on August 29.

An estimated 10,000 Pakistanis have protested in Lahore over a Dutch politician's plans to hold a cartoon competition featuring caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, with more mass protests expected in the coming days.

The protests on August 29 were organized by Tehreek-i-Labaik, an Islamist party that won an unexpectedly large number of votes in last month's general election, with some candidates campaigning on promises of punishment for crimes of blasphemy.

Physical depictions of Allah or the Prophet, even positive ones, are forbidden in Islam and considered deeply offensive. Pakistan's newly elected government has denounced the Dutch cartoon contest, calling it an attempt to defame Islam.

But Labaik party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi said that is not enough and is calling for a break in diplomatic ties with the Netherlands.

Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders

He said he intends to take the protests that began in Lahore through the towns of Punjab Province to the capital Islamabad, where protesters plan to stage a sit-in to pressure Pakistan's new Prime Minister Imran Khan to cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands.

"The Dutch ambassador should be immediately deported," Labaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters. "We will only stop when the government meets this demand."

Pakistan has already complained to the Dutch government about the contest planned by Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch lawmaker with a history of incendiary remarks about Islam. The event has the potential to upset Muslims not only in Pakistan but elsewhere around the world.

Wilders has said he intends to display the cartoons on the walls of his political party's room in parliament. He said he’s had "hundreds" of entries.

The Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte last week distanced his government from the cartoon competition, saying it "was not something I would do," while defending Wilders' right to freedom of speech.

Khan's office said on August 29 that Pakistan has registered a protest with the Dutch ambassador over the matter and will bring the matter before the United Nations.

"They don't understand how much they hurt us when they do such acts," Khan said on August 28, a day after the upper house of parliament condemned the planned cartoon competition.

Officials from the Punjab provincial government met with Labaik leaders in Lahore in a vain attempt to persuade them to call off their protest on August 29.

But emotions have been running high over the matter in Pakistan, where blasphemy is punishable by death and where the mere accusation of it can cause lynchings.

A former Pakistani cricketer, Khalid Latif, has offered a $28,000 reward for anyone who would "kill the Dutchmen" behind the cartoon contest.

On August 28, Dutch news reports suggested that a man who was detained there on suspicion of threatening to attack Wilders was a Pakistani national. Police said they detained a 26-year-old suspect who is likely to be arraigned on August 30.

Wilders has for years lived under constant security due to repeated death threats linked to his criticism of Islam.

Labaik led a major protest against the government last year, shutting down a main highway leading into Islamabad for nearly three weeks over a small change in wording in an electoral law that it contended amounted to blasphemy.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party at that time was forced to accept the resignation of Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid, who Labaik held responsible for the change, after seven people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in a failed attempt by police to disperse the protesters.

With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters

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