Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karimov Exploits Iraq Crisis

President appears to be taking advantage of West’s focus on Iraq to renew pressure on the media.
By Olga Borisova

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, seems to be exploiting the international community’s preoccupation with an impending war in Iraq to launch a new crackdown on the press.

With the world leaders and western organisations focused on the imminent United States-led assault on Baghdad, the Tashkent regime has been busy sacking and arresting journalists, while its supporters are suspected of intimidating them.

Amirkul Karimov, editor of the independent newspaper Khurriyat and director of the national press centre, was sacked on March 14 after the president’s office decided it would be better for him to head the Oltin Meroz [Golden Heritage] foundation, an international charitable fund.

“I am a journalist. I don’t have any idea about the work that Oltin Meroz does. I would do more for the country working at the newspaper and in the international press centre,” a shocked Amirkul Karimov told the media.

The dismissal has been linked to a critical article published two days previously, in which Khurriyat highlighted the plight of children reduced to scavenging in Tashkent’s rubbish heaps.

According to people close to the sacked editor, he had already received warnings from presidential advisors that it was “not desirable” for him to publish hard-hitting and critical articles.

The previous week, two journalists from the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty organisations were beaten up when they tried to cover an opposition meeting held at the capital’s Chor-su market.

When the editor of Milly Talim (Popular Education), Ismat Khushev, protested against the government’s decision to close the newspaper down, he allegedly received threatening phone calls from anonymous individuals who told him to keep quiet if he wanted to live.

In mid-February, the editor of the newspaper Adolat (Justice), Tokhtomurod Toshev, was arrested on charges of bribe taking. At the same time, journalist Gairat Mekhlibaev was convicted of belonging to the banned Islamic organisation Khizb ut-Takhrir. Several journalists in other regions of the country have also been arrested on various charges.

Talib Yakubov, the general secretary of the Society for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, has condemned the new media crackdown, and voiced fears for the future of free speech in the republic.

“When the authorities registered one human rights organisation in 2002 and fired head censor Erkin Komilov, the Americans hurried to announce that democratic reforms had begun in Uzbekistan,” he said.

“We were certain that [this] was another case of the Uzbek government fooling society and the international community as a whole. The events that are taking place now in Uzbekistan show that, unfortunately, we were right.”

Karimov – a strong supporter of Washington’s so-called “war on terror” – has been keen to show his new ally that he’s right behind its bid to subdue the Baghdad regime. Recently, he told the media that only force could rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and encouraged America to attack without waiting for a second United Nations resolution.

Uzbekistan has been cultivating closer ties with Washington since the September 11 attacks, with the republic emerging as a significant strategic partner due to its proximity to Afghanistan.

Tashkent offered the Khanabad air base to coalition forces before their assault on the Taleban regime. Karimov was rewarded for his cooperation with a sizeable increase in financial aid, receiving a total of 192 million US dollars in 2002 alone.

History professor Faizulla Iskhakov sees Karimov’s willingness to cooperate with Washington as “purely in the economic interests of Uzbekistan”.

Unlike the rest of the international community, the US seems unconcerned about the human rights abuses within Uzbekistan – instead praising the republic for improving its economic and political situation.

Washington’s determination to unseat Saddam Hussein and yet allow Karimov to get away with abuses has enraged human rights activists. “Perhaps the Uzbek dictator does not have weapons of mass destruction, but he can send masses of people to prison,” said campaigner Talib Yakubov.

Olga Borisov is an independent journalist in Uzbekistan.