Prague, 26 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- After meeting this week with Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- in a trip that also includes stopovers in Iraq, Kuwait, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan -- visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that U.S. defense relations with Uzbekistan were strong and "growing stronger every month."
"In the past, the Uzbek authorities have made certain concessions ahead -- for example -- of a State Department certification.... But it's stopped after that. So it's always been short-term improvement."
Then, asked whether Uzbekistan's controversial record on human rights will weigh heavily on future ties, Rumsfeld replied that the U.S. relationship with the Central Asian nation involves economic, political, and security issues as well as human rights.
Maisy Weicherding is a researcher on Central Asia and the South Caucasus for Amnesty International in London. She welcomes the fact that Rumsfeld publicly mentioned the human rights issue.
"[This] is something that [Rumsfeld] hasn't done, for example, in Azerbaijan, when he went there just after the elections,” she notes. “So I think that already sends a signal that human rights are definitely on the agenda with Uzbekistan."
Rumsfeld visited Baku in December, six weeks after a controversial presidential election that raised accusations of vote-rigging and resulted in a harsh crackdown on the political opposition.
The U.S. defense secretary openly congratulated Ilham Aliev on his election victory, and refused to answer questions about whether the presidential elections had met international standards.
Rachel Denber is the acting director of the Europe and Central Asia division of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. She says Rumsfeld's stance in Azerbaijan undermined efforts by the U.S. State Department to promote democracy and human rights in that country.
For that reason, Denber says she welcomes Rumsfeld's move to include human rights among the issues affecting U.S.-Uzbek ties. Still, she says, his statement could have been stronger.
"Certainly, we would like to have seen Rumsfeld spin out what the human rights issues actually are and give some indication to the Uzbek government that the U.S. will be watching the Uzbek government very closely. However, we can only hope that the message was sent to the Uzbek government that the Pentagon will be taking into consideration Uzbekistan's human rights record," Denber said.
Rumsfeld's visit to Uzbekistan coincided with the release of Fatima Mukhadirova, an Uzbek woman who had been 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.
Rumsfeld noted that the U.S. ambassador had said Washington was "pleased" with the court ruling in Mukhadirova's favor.
But rights activists in Uzbekistan say Mukhadirova's release is only meant to distract outside observers from continuing repressions. Seven young men were reportedly jailed this week on charges of religious extremism.
Weicherding notes that the U.S. must insist that Mukhadirova's release is not a short-term concession by the Uzbek authorities in order to receive the State Department certifications they need in order to receive aid.
"In the past, the Uzbek authorities have made certain concessions ahead -- for example -- of a State Department certification or, a few years ago, ahead of the State Department report on religious practice. But it's stopped after that. So it's always been short-term improvement," Weicherding 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 U.S. administration 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.
In the past 12 months, the Uzbek government has released four imprisoned human rights defenders.
But it has also made several high-profile arrests.
Muidinjon Kurbanov, a leader of the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the opposition political party Birlik (Unity), was arrested this month. He is facing weapons and narcotics charges. Human Rights Watch says the charges appear to be politically motivated.
Ruslan Sharipov, another independent human rights activist, is serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of consensual homosexual conduct and sex with a minor. According to Human Rights Watch, the trial did not meet even the minimal standards of judicial procedure and came amid credible allegations Sharipov had been tortured.
The U.S. State Department yesterday released its annual human rights report, in which it accuses the Uzbek government of continuing to commit numerous rights abuses, such as mistreating suspects and torturing and beating detainees.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the report is a vital instrument in guiding foreign policy.