Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev today met in Brussels with an EU delegation headed by Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who represented the bloc's current presidency.
After the meeting, Asselborn praised what he said was clear intent from the Uzbek side to consider abolishing the death penalty.
"This morning, the Uzbek foreign minister stated that Uzbekistan wants to abolish the death penalty. [The country] needs some time for reflection on this, but it does want to abolish the death penalty for all cases," Asselborn said. "It is a very concrete step in the dialogue between the EU and the countries of Central Asia. It is truly remarkable that we have come to such a conclusion."
An Amnesty International report released in advance of the meeting says Uzbekistan last year sentenced between 50 and 60 people to death.
Asselborn said the EU understands that Uzbekistan's transition to democracy and rule of law cannot be immediate. He said the bloc is willing to assist Uzbekistan with reforms, and said he sees developments in the country in a broader context.
"[The EU is willing] to help encourage them to take decisive steps to abolish torture, to hold elections as we know them in democratic countries, [societies based on] the rule of law," Asselborn said. "If one looks at what happened in Ukraine, in Palestine or what took place on Sunday (30 January) in Iraq, we see that in the Arab world, in the countries of the former Soviet Union -- among them Uzbekistan -- democracy is [taking root] step by step in a decisive fashion."
Privately, EU officials said they had confronted the Uzbek delegation with damning reports detailing persistent human rights abuses and the torture of prisoners. They also challenged the Uzbek side on the conduct of parliamentary elections last year, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has strongly criticized. An OSCE report said the elections fell significantly short of international standards.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Safaev defended the vote after the meeting.
"[It is] the first time in history [that ] the Uzbeks can select their deputies to the parliament, selecting [from among] five or six candidates running in every constituency," Safaev said. "It is a real step forward. [For the] first time, the more than 3,000 Uzbek NGOs participated in a system that we call civic society. Five years ago we couldn't imagine that. [For the] first time Freedom House [and] other international organizations might together with the Uzbek law enforcement system make an open investigation of the reports of human rights abuses in the penitentiary system."
EU officials said after the meeting that Sarajevo had argued Uzbekistan's secular institutions are under continuous threat from Islamist fundamentalists.
The EU regards Uzbekistan as an important partner country in Central Asia, given its proximity to Russia, China, and Afghanistan. EU sources said, however, the bloc had rejected Uzbekistan's request to be included in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy meant to support countries on the bloc's borders.
A senior European Commission representative will travel to Uzbekistan in April to prepare ground for a later visit by the EU's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.