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U.S. Urged To 'Name Names' In Support Of Central Asia's Political Prisoners

Exiled Uzbek opposition leader Sanjar Umarov (photo courtesy of Sunshine Coalition)
Civil liberties advocates and a former political prisoner from Uzbekistan have urged the United States to continue "naming names" in support of Central Asia's jailed opposition leaders, religious figures, and journalists.

"For every case like mine there are thousands of other prisoners who die as a direct result of abuse and torture by investigators, prison guards, and administrators," said Sanjar Umarov, the exiled founder of Uzbekistan's opposition Sunshine Coalition, who led the call at a May 15 hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in Washington.

"The United States and the world community must defend the thousands of prisoners in Uzbekistan that are being tortured as we speak. The U.S. and the world community must demand that the government of Uzbekistan take specific and verifiable actions to address political persecutions and the torture of prisoners," he said.

Umarov's movement had called for reforms to the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov before the opposition leader was jailed in 2006 for embezzlement and tax evasion -- charges his supporters say were politically motivated.

Umarov was later amnestied amid U.S. lobbying, which he credited with "saving his life." He was soon granted asylum.

Umarov's call comes amid concern by some rights groups that the scale has tipped too far in the direction of political expediency -- and too far from sounding the alarm on human rights violations -- in current relations between Washington and Central Asia.

Crucial Region

The region, which plays a crucial role in transiting supplies to the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, had long been notorious for its closed political systems and lack of freedoms.

U.S. leaders maintain that they consistently raise the issue of rights transgressions, and mention individual cases, in private discussions with leaders of Central Asian countries.

Catherine Cosman, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also told the commission's lawmakers that Washington should "shine a light" on Central Asia's thousands of prisoners of conscience, for whom "publicity is a lifeline."

She argued that increased U.S. relations with Central Asia because of its role in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) could be a chance to exert more leverage on human rights transgressions.

"Many believe that because of the NDN, politically speaking, the United States is in a weaker position to raise human rights concerns with these governments. Personally, I believe that, in fact, it's the opposite, because these governments are extremely corrupt and the U.S. government pays a lot for these transit routes and so the officials in these governments stand to gain personally," she said.

"So I would say that, in fact, if [the United States] raises human rights cases and makes use of NDN connection in that way, we could see human rights gains."

'Moral Cost'

Azimjan Askarov in a Kyrgyz prison in December 2011
Azimjan Askarov in a Kyrgyz prison in December 2011
In the sphere of religious freedoms, she singled out Tajikistan as having "possibly the worst legal climate for freedom of religion or belief in Central Asia."

Cosman also cited reports of routine, severe beatings of religious prisoners in Turkmenistan, and excessive administrative hurdles for religious groups in Kazakhstan.

Muzaffar Suleymanov, a research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists, highlighted the case of rights activist and journalist Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek in Kyrgyzstan who was sentenced to life in jail in late 2011.

He was convicted of organizing clashes and for involvement in the murder of a policeman during ethnic riots in 2010. Askarov's supporters say his investigative reporting on rights abuses was behind his punishment.

U.S. Congressman Stephen Cohen (Democrat-Tennessee), a member of the Helsinki Commission, said Washington at times "accepts or ignorantly adjusts" to Central Asia's authoritarian presidents in return for their cooperation on Afghanistan.

He said, however, that it must not ignore the "moral cost."