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Uzbekistan: President Promises Reforms At Spring Session

Prague, 21 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov has used the country's spring session of parliament to continue to warn of Islamic fundamentalism and to outline a tentative series of political reforms.

The spring session, held last week, is considered the most important parliamentary gathering and is the time when Karimov outlines his policy course for the remainder of the year.

During last year's spring meeting, Karimov declared war on religious extremists. At one point, he told deputies he would get a gun and kill extremists himself if the deputies were not willing to take care of business themselves.

That sentiment has not faded. Islamic extremists are perceived as more dangerous than ever and the need to guard against what Karimov calls these "enemies of the state" was a starting point for his opening address this year.

Religious extremism came to the fore as a major problem in 1997, when a some policemen were killed in the Uzbek section of the Fergana Valley. Officials blamed the "Wahhabis," an orthodox sect of Islam usually associated with Saudi Arabia but also a term used generically during the Soviet period to denote any fundamentalist.

Concern this year was heightened in February when a series of bombs went off in Tashkent, killing 15 people and injuring more than 100 others. The blasts were widely seen as an attempt on Karimov's life.

With his own experience to add to the call to combat, Karimov told deputies that Islamists are diverting the country from its path:

"Threatening forces outside the country are using the opportunities of the Islamic religion, knowing the value it has for our people. They are trying to divert Uzbekistan from its democratic and enlightened path of development."

But Karimov also acknowledged that the country's human rights situation needed improving and promised changes in official attitudes toward the media.

International human rights organizations have been reporting rights abuses since Uzbek independence in 1991, and the energetic campaign against religious extremists has greatly multiplied these complaints.

Officials have mostly targeted the political opposition, including groups such as Adolat (Justice), Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Freedom). These were all banned in the early years of independence and their leaders were forced to leave the country.

Opposition activist Abdurashid Sharifov says trials earlier in the decade against members of two opposition groups demonstrate the country's poor stand on human rights:

"The political processes against members of the Adolat and Erk parties once again demonstrated ... that the justice system in Uzbekistan remains as nothing more than a well-preserved relic of Stalinist times."

The leader of Uzbekistan's banned Birlik Party, Abdurahim Pulat, says the government has jailed or beaten many opposition figures and that many human rights organizations are still prevented from operating in the country.

"Most of the opposition members who are in the country have either been arrested, have disappeared in jails, or have been physically forced to stop their political activity. Uzbek authorities refuse to register human rights organizations. All mass media are under the intense control and censorship of the authorities and serve solely Karimov's dictatorial regime. More importantly, Uzbekistan's population is suffering because Karimov's administration has been extremely slow in carrying out free-market reforms, and thus, has produced poverty and unemployment."

Concerning the media, Karimov told deputies he wants to cooperate more closely with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in developing non-governmental organizations and helping the mass media.

Uzbekistan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections at the end of the year and is keen to please the Western governments which are monitoring Uzbekistan's political progress.

The OSCE has sharply criticized the presidential elections held earlier this year in Kazakhstan in part because the media was not given equal access to all candidates. Uzbekistan will be looking to win the OSCE's seal of approval.

For some in Uzbekistan, the whole process of conducting parliamentary sessions -- such as the spring session -- doesn't hold much meaning, especially as parliament has never gotten around to enacting many of Karimov's reforms in the past.

One man told our correspondent on the streets of Tashkent that he doesn't feel the deputies are free to express their own opinions:

"I'm not satisfied with the deputies work at all. Why? Because they never give their own opinions openly. They are raising their hands, they never say 'no' or 'it's wrong.'"

Still, observers say that this year's spring session was special in that Karimov has never promised so much at once. And, they say, it is the deputies who are the ones who must gain the voters confidence by year end.

(This article was based in part on reporting by Bill Hasanov, Aral Azizullah and Ulughbek Normatov of the Uzbek Service)