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EBRD: Rights Groups Criticize Plan To Hold Annual Meeting In Tashkent

By Mark Baker/Antoine Blua

Human-rights groups are criticizing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for planning to hold its annual meeting next year in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The groups say the meeting -- planned for May 2003 -- will bring unmerited prestige to the Uzbek government and allow it to hide its poor record on human rights. The president of the bank told RFE/RL it is monitoring the situation in Uzbekistan, but that there are no plans to cancel the meeting.

Bucharest, 21 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Human-rights groups are criticizing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or EBRD, for planning to hold its annual meeting next year in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

The rights groups, including the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), say the meeting -- planned for May 2003 -- will bring prestige to the Uzbek government and allow it to hide its poor record on human rights.

Around 50 NGOs sent EBRD President Jean Lemierre a letter last weekend calling on the bank to press the Uzbek government for meaningful improvements in human rights in the 12 months before the meeting. The letter was timed to coincide with the EBRD's annual meeting this year in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

Veronika Leila Szente Goldmon of Human Rights Watch told RFE/RL: "We believe that it would be very counterproductive for the bank to go ahead with its annual meeting without significant progress in human rights. Otherwise, the government would be left to use the meeting as an endorsement of its repressive policies. So it's instrumental for the bank to use this year that it still has at hand -- between May 2002 and May 2003 -- to push for concrete benchmarks [for gauging progress in human rights]."

Goldmon said if the bank does not press the Uzbeks on rights, the EBRD will be sending a signal that it does not care about human rights or that it approves of Tashkent's policies.

"If the bank holds such a high-level gathering there without publicly making clear that it is concerned about human-rights violations, it is concerned and unhappy about Uzbekistan's human-rights record, and without pressing for concrete benchmarks before holding this meeting, the Uzbek government will be left to flag it as an endorsement," Goldmon said.

Rights groups for years have sharply criticized acts of repression carried out by the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov against political and religious dissidents. They say Tashkent has jailed thousands of political prisoners, including hundreds of Muslims whose only crime is practicing religion outside state control.

Marie Struthers of HRW recently spent several months living in Uzbekistan. "There are no independent political parties or social movements existing in the country at this time. And as you may well know, since the end of the Soviet era, there hasn't been a single election that organizations, including the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have considered to be free and fair," Struthers said.

She says torture of prisoners remains a serious problem despite a recent condemnation by the United Nations of how Uzbeks authorities treat those in custody.

"Torture is systemic, unfortunately, in Uzbekistan. It is rampant in police stations and other pretrial detention centers, as well postconviction detention facilities. In the last two weeks, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a very severe report criticizing Uzbekistan for its record on torture, and called -- if you can believe it -- for the re-examination of all those cases -- which are thousands by the way -- of convictions based on confessions extracted under duress," Struthers said.

The Uzbek delegation to the EBRD's Bucharest meeting defended the country's rights record. Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov told participants that Uzbekistan has definitely made the choice to move toward a market economy and democracy.

He said, however, that it is a long process. Speaking through a translator, he said it would be unrealistic for the West to expect democracy in four or five years after 70 years of totalitarianism.

"In many countries, it took hundreds of years to build a democratic society. We are not asking for hundreds of years, but one cannot build a democratic society in four or five years, especially in countries that have lived under communist ideology and totalitarianism for 75 years," Azimov said.

The EBRD appears receptive to the rights groups' appeal, but it's not clear how far the bank can go to meet their demands. Plans for the meeting are well-advanced, and there's no talk of canceling.

The EBRD is obliged by its charter to uphold democratic systems, including human rights, in its lending and investment policies. Bank officials say they take the charter seriously.

In an interview with RFE/RL last weekend, EBRD President Lemierre said he is monitoring the situation closely. "We haven't made any specific decision, of course, on Uzbekistan -- you would know if it had been taken -- but it's clear that we [are monitoring] the situation. And it's clear that -- as a principle -- in all the countries of the region, transparency, democracy, openness, [and] progress toward more openness are crucial for the bank and for the investors."

Lemierre said no decision had been made on how to proceed ahead of the Tashkent meeting because the bank's assessment of the rights situation in Uzbekistan has not been completed.

"These questions are very important, very sensitive for everybody. And my current answer today is, 'We haven't made that assessment,'" Lemierre said.

Goldmon of HRW said that, at a minimum, the bank should enforce a series of benchmarks to gauge Uzbekistan's progress on human rights. She said these include seeking guarantees from Tashkent to protect human-rights workers who criticize the government or who may speak out at next year's meeting.

Other benchmarks include efforts to reform the judiciary and to allow UN human-rights workers access to the country to monitor the situation.

She said she's still puzzled by the bank's choice of Tashkent for the meeting, instead of another Central Asian capital more deserving of the honor. She said the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, would have been a better choice.

"Why not Kyrgyzstan, for example? Not perfect. Far from perfect. But far from Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan ranks very high among human-rights violators on our list," Goldmon said.

The EBRD has a difficult year ahead as it balances an obligation to promote democracy with its aim of helping build up the economies of the transitional countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Officials may, in time, come to wish they, too, had chosen Bishkek.