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US Support for Karimov Under Scrutiny

The strengthening of US ties with Uzbekistan is worrying other Central Asian states and human rights activists.
By Chinara Jakypova

With its geographical proximity to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan is emerging as a key target in the current US diplomatic offensive to firm up support for the war against terrorism.

Thus Tashkent, and its authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, are now courted as an ally by an administration which only months earlier had been criticising the Central Asian state's human rights record. This fast developing friendship is a growing concern to both Uzbekistan's neighbours, as well as human rights activists across the region.

Amnesty International was quick to point out the human rights implications of recent events when it released a report on Central Asia on October 11, which concluded that the region's leaders may use the fight against terrorism as a pretext for imposing more restrictions on rights and liberties.

Indeed, there is concern that Karimov is already doing this, by branding his political opponents inside Uzbekistan "Islamic fundamentalists" and "followers of Bin Laden".

More than two weeks ago members of the Khizb-ut-Takhrir party were put on trial in the capital Tashkent, charged with being connected to the Saudi dissident. Uzbek human rights activists said that insufficient evidence was presented in court to back such a claim.

Muhammad Salikh, leader of the Uzbek opposition movement in exile, says he has been informed that Karimov plans to exclude a number of political prisoners - in all likelihood suspected members of illegal Islamic groups - from this year's amnesty.

However, in the current climate such actions are unlikely to draw any international criticism. According to an expert on Uzbekistan, who preferred not to be named, "Karimov behaved like a true Oriental politician, when he supported America without hesitation. He knows that from now on nobody in the West will have anything to do with Uzbek political prisoners, freedom of speech and human rights in Uzbekistan."

There are regional fears that Tashkent will exploit American backing to get its way regionally, especially over territorial disputes. Some neighbouring countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, are fearful that Karimov would even resort to force - although Washington has said that it would not support such aggression.

Hopes expressed by some observers that American support for Uzbekistan would promote democratic processes in Uzbekistan and improve its economic prospects have been dismissed by Karimov opponents.

"There is only one thing which can attract investors - the liberalisation of the economy. But that is what Karimov wants to prevent at all costs because this could lead to political liberalisation which is fatal for his regime," said Muhammad Salikh.

"I think that US cooperation with Uzbekistan will just prolong existence of Karimov's leadership. Look at Saudi Arabia which is a long-term American ally. Has it become more democratic? "

Cozying up to the US may buttress Karimov in the short-term, but it will simply store up trouble. Muslim groups, particularly ones based outside the capital, are incensed both with Karimov's hardline religious policies and continual economic deprivation and could step up their attempts to topple his regime.

One thing is for certain. Given the political geography of Central Asia, the emergence of the US as a close ally of Uzbekistan will make an already complex diplomatic landscape even more so. As leader of the Kazak opposition Orleu movement Seidakhmet Kuttykadam said, "As it was not enough that Central Asia is squeezed between China, Russia and the Muslim world now we also have an American eagle flying over it."

Chinara Jakypova is IWPR regional director in Kyrgyzstan

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