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Uzbekistan Cracking Down On Dissent, Freedom House Says

Uzbek President Islam Karimov
ALMATY (Reuters) -- Uzbekistan has intensified attacks against rights activists ahead of this week's parliamentary election, a U.S. rights watchdog said.

The West cut off ties with Uzbekistan after state troops opened fire on protesters in the eastern city of Andijon in 2005, killing hundreds of people, according to witnesses.

But relations have warmed this year as Uzbekistan's proximity to Afghanistan made it an important transit point for U.S.-led operations there.

The December 27 election is certain to tighten the rule of President Islam Karimov, who has led Central Asia's most populous nation since 1989. Uzbekistan has never held a vote judged to be free and fair by Western observers.

Freedom House said it had received reports of increased harassment in Uzbekistan against rights activists.

"Freedom House is deeply troubled by an intensified crackdown on human rights defenders in Uzbekistan," the Washington-based human rights group said in a statement late on December 21.

"Research indicates that Uzbekistan has not made any credible efforts to reverse its brutal and sustained repression of civil society," it said.

Most Western media have been unable to report from the mainly Muslim nation since their press accreditations were revoked in the crackdown following the 2005 Andijon protests.

Nevertheless, Washington has stepped up contacts with Tashkent after the country agreed to allow nonmilitary supplies to pass through its territory en route to Afghanistan. The European Union lifted all sanctions on Uzbekistan in October.

Uzbekistan has also made overtures toward the West, freeing opposition politician Sanjar Umarov from jail last month. But Freedom House said Uzbekistan was at the same time locking up other dissidents.

"We hope the government of Uzbekistan will take the opportunity to make further steps to alleviate the plight of the jailed human rights defenders and their loved ones," it said.

The election is certain to hand Karimov's allies all seats in the lower house in a country that has no officially registered opposition parties.

Candidates from four parties and one environmental movement, all publicly supporting Karimov, are running for 150 seats.