WASHINGTON -- Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and five other Senate Democrats called on the U.S. administration to press Uzbekistan’s leaders on human rights issues during an upcoming dialogue session.
In a letter made public on December 6, the senators said they recognized "Uzbekistan’s progress on human rights," but they urged the Central Asian nation to conduct sweeping reforms “as promised by President Shavkat Mirziyoev.”
Representatives from the two nations are due to meet later this month in the first Strategic Partnership Dialogue.
The senators said the meeting "offers a unique opportunity to establish respect for human rights as a fundamental component of the United States relationship with Uzbekistan."
In their letter, the senators singled out concerns over limits on free speech and the press and lack of progress toward political liberalization.
The letter, sent to the Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was also signed by Senators Chris Van Hollen (Maryland), Dick Durbin (Illinois), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Ben Cardin (Maryland).
"Despite much-lauded reforms, Uzbekistan remains among the world’s most repressive countries, and at risk of reversing recent gains," the senators wrote in the letter.
"In the aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, our bilateral relationship with Uzbekistan has become even more important to our interests and our values. As we increase our security and counterterrorism coordination we must also emphasize the importance of human rights in Uzbekistan and for our partnership."
The senators urged the U.S. administration to work with Tashkent to ensure the meaningful reform of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) last month said the October reelection of Mirziyoev to a second term, with no real opposition candidates allowed to run, coincided with “clear setbacks” on the country’s human rights record.
Mirziyoev came under criticism for cracking down on his critics and activists ahead of the vote.
The Uzbek president is struggling to counter impressions that his government is sliding back toward the authoritarian habits of his long-reigning predecessor, Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoev did open up Central Asia's most-populous nation to foreign investment, improved Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors, and eased the Karimov-era restrictions on religious freedoms while also releasing dozens of political prisoners.
But, like his predecessor, Mirziyoev exercises virtually unrestrained political power in Uzbekistan and his relatives have been accused of using his political clout to amass wealth.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reported on November 24 that police in the Tashkent capital region had forced dozens of practicing Muslims to shave off their beards, a practice in the Central Asian nation that has been criticized by domestic and international rights organization for years.