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Uzbek President Karimov Postpones Contentious Czech Visit

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (right) on his arrival last week in Sochi for the start of the Winter Olympics
Uzbek President Islam Karimov (right) on his arrival last week in Sochi for the start of the Winter Olympics
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has postponed a widely criticized official visit to the Czech Republic next week, Czech sources have confirmed.

The visit had been criticized by rights group and others, upset over charges of Uzbek torture, the jailing of political opponents and journalists, and other rights offenses.

Hynek Kmonicek, a foreign-policy adviser to Czech President Milos Zeman, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on February 13, "It's not a cancellation, it's a postponing."

He said the Uzbek side had cited a scheduling conflict, noting that the planned date of February 20-22 came during a spring holiday and "not all the people we expected were present," including Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and "five of six ministers slated to sign bilateral agreements with the Uzbek side."

A growing list of Czech national and local officials saying they were unavailable to meet with the Uzbek delegation reportedly did not sit well with Tashkent.

"Simply, these were way too many changes to be explained, for the Uzbek side," Kmonicek said.

No new date has been set, he added.

RELATED: Czech President Defends Right To Host Uzbekistan's Karimov

Czech-based humanitarian group People in Need (Clovek v Tisni) had joined dozens of other international organizations to urge Zeman to withdraw his invitation to the Uzbek leader.

On February 13, a group of 31 trade unions, investors, and rights organizations published an open letter, urging Zeman to cancel the visit.

Zeman had publicly defended the overture, saying his predecessor, Vaclav Klaus, had extended the invite.

The Czech president also called critics of the visit "hypocritical," claiming that there had been no complaints about Karimov's meetings with leading EU officials or the fact that Washington viewed him as an ally in the fight against terrorism.

People in Need responded by saying Karimov had only been to the EU twice in the past five years, and that several senior officials, including European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, had declined to meet him.

"International organizations have long noted imprisonment of political opponents and journalists, systematic torture including rape and submerging victims in boiling water, and the failure to investigate the case of hundreds of murdered demonstrators in Andijon," the group said on its website.

Andrew Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch welcomed the postponement of Karimov's visit. Stroehlein was one of the signatories to the open letter urging Zeman to cancel the visit.

"This is good news," he said. "We have been campaigning for this meeting not to happen and now it seems that it's not happening and that's good for a couple of reasons. First of all, [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov will not be able to use the images of him meeting Western leaders. He does visits like this and he tries to show his people back home that he is respected and treated as an important person. And he won't have those television images to show and that's an incredibly important thing."

Former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service earlier this week that while Prague had "quite considerable interests" in the region, nothing prevented Czech authorities from discussing human rights issues with Karimov in Prague.

"The job of the president is to foster the interests of the Czech Republic," he said. "Of course, I would be very glad if President [Milos Zeman], when he meets [Uzbek President Islam Karimov], [goes on] to discuss with him the problems of the people in jail in Uzbekistan and all these questions. But you can't exclude existing governments of important states. We have quite considerable interests in Central Asia."

"Respekt" broke the news of the postponement earlier on February 13, quoting Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek as saying, "Yes, that's so."

The European Union imposed sanctions against Tashkent in 2005 following the Andijon massacre of hundreds of demonstrators by government forces.

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