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Uzbekistan: Rumsfeld Visits To Discuss Security Issues

Prague, 24 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived today in Uzbekistan following visits to Iraq and Kuwait. It's his third visit to the Central Asian republic in the past two years.

Rumsfeld will hold talks with President Islam Karimov about current and future bilateral relations, regional security problems, and the situation in neighboring Afghanistan. He is then due to travel to Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

"We would like Donald Rumsfeld to tell President Karimov very firmly that he should improve his records in terms of human rights."
Uzbekistan became a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism in 2001 when Tashkent allowed U.S. forces to use the Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan for military operations in Afghanistan.

In a 21 February interview with the Associated Press, Uzbek Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev said U.S. troops are welcome to stay as long as operations continue in Afghanistan. He left open the possibility of a long-term American presence in the country.

Human rights groups have criticized the U.S.-Uzbek alliance, however, pointing to Tashkent's widespread breaches of international human rights conventions.

Jean-Paul Marthoz from the New York-based Human Rights Watch is calling on Rumsfeld to tell the Uzbek leadership that such violations will impede greater cooperation between the two states.

"We would like Donald Rumsfeld to tell President Karimov very firmly that he should improve his records in terms of human rights. We believe there is a contradiction between the messages given by the Pentagon and the message which has been conveyed by the State Department last month," Marthoz said.

The U.S. State Department in January decertified Uzbekistan for aid under a U.S. nonproliferation assistance program because Tashkent had made no progress toward ending police torture and other abuses. Uzbekistan will still receive the designated U.S. funds under a special waiver.

This spring, however, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush will have to decide whether to certify Uzbekistan for broader assistance programs. These programs have no waivers, meaning all direct assistance will be suspended if Uzbekistan is decertified.

Uzbekistan was the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid among nations in Central Asia -- receiving $86 million in 2003. Kazakhstan received the most U.S. assistance last year -- $92 million.

Michael Sweeney is co-author of a report on U.S. strategy in Central Asia by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis. He recently told RFE/RL that he believes the strategic alliance with Uzbekistan is undermining U.S. regional security interests.

"Karimov has shown little inclination to pursue true economic and political reform, as he pledged himself in the March 2002 five-point strategic partnership agreement. There are long-term dangers in terms of the U.S. image and in terms of inciting anti-Americanism if we cling too tightly to a relationship with Uzbekistan when Karimov remains reluctant to change," Sweeney said.

The report recommends that Washington give Karimov until January 2006 to show real progress in economic and political reforms. If insufficient progress is made, Sweeney says, Washington should withdraw its forces and curtail its links with Uzbekistan.

Prior to Rumsfeld's arrival, an Uzbek court today ordered the release of Fatima Mukadirova. Earlier this month, Mukadirova was sentenced to six years in prison for possession of banned Muslim pamphlets. Human rights activists said the government was trying to silence her after she had accused prison officials of torturing her son to death.

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