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US Prompts Uzbek Rights Rethink

After earning an appalling human rights record over the past few years, Uzbekistan shows signs of changing tack, under pressure from its powerful new American ally.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

After gaining international notoriety for the ruthless suppression of human rights and lack of basic freedoms, Uzbekistan has recently signalled a change of direction.

One sign of this was the sudden decision to allow the campaign group Independent Organization for Human Rights in Uzbekistan to register with the authorities. Although the IOHRU was set up on August 2, 1997, the government repeatedly refused to accredit the body under various pretexts.

While the office for non-governmental organisations at the justice ministry declined to comment on the change of heart, few doubt the key role played by the nation's growing ties to the United States, forged in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

IOHRU chairman Mikhail Ardzinov said signs of change appeared after Uzbekistan joined the international anti-terrorist bloc, and have improved since Tashkent forged closer military and economic links with Washington, culminating in President Islam Karimov's first official visit to the US on March 12.

"Karimov had to do his homework before going to America. He had to showcase his commitment to democracy and liberalisation in Uzbekistan," Ardzinov said. Tashkent has realised the benefits of acting as a partner to the civilised world and is following its recommendations in human rights matters, he added.

Washington has consciously assisted the liberalisation process. All American missions visiting Uzbekistan in 2002 have met independent local human rights organisations. On January 7, the head of a US delegation, Democrat Senator Joseph Lieberman, said his country was grateful to Tashkent for helping the anti-terrorist drive but added that Washington would limit assistance for Uzbekistan unless it improved its human rights record.

According to IOHRU, the number of trials involving members of banned religious or political organisations has dropped significantly in 2002 compared to 2001. In another breakthrough, four police officers were sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment at the end of January for torturing two suspected members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir Islamic movement, killing one and maiming the other.

In February, the interior ministry returned IOHRU's archives, office equipment and Ardzinov's passport. They were seized in June 1999, when police beat him in his apartment and then took him to a Tashkent police department where the beating continued.

"None of this would have been possible before September 11," said Kamiljon Ashurov of the Samarkand office of IOHRU. "We had been under constant pressure until last autumn. I was under surveillance. Maybe I still am, but it isn't as obvious anymore. There are no more threats and we feel safer."

Another incentive for Uzbekistan to improve its rights record is a desperate need for investment. Its economy has recently sunk to an all-time low in the wake of a drop in international prices for cotton and gold, the country's key export commodities. President Karimov recently warned that Uzbekistan stands to lose some 1.2 billion US dollars in 2002 as a result of the price slump.

Despite his optimism, Ardzinov said it was too early to speak of the serious liberalisation of Uzbek politics. "We have no freedom of press and our media is rigorously censored," he said. "Meetings and conventions are banned. About 7,000 political prisoners are still in jail."

Moreover, IOHRU recently reported that 14 people accused of professing the Islamic Wahabi teaching had gone on trial March 5 in the eastern town of Fergana, charged with unconstitutional activity and dissemination of religious material.

The human rights association Ezgulik (Compassion) reported another incident that came as a reminder of how far Uzbekistan must go before it proves its commitment to democracy and the humane treatment of prisoners. It said the body of Nasrattula Kamilov, 28, was brought back from jail to his parental home in Tashkent on March 4. Kamilov was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1998 for membership in Hizb-ut-Tahrir but died in prison of tuberculosis.

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR Central Asian Project Director for Uzbekistan

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