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Friday, April 02, 2004

Recent terrorisy attacks in Uzbekistan have forced the Central Asian Republic firmly into the spotlight of the global media. The severity of human rights abuses in the country have been impossible to ignore.

Islam Karimov was re-elected president of the country in January 2000 after elections in which, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) there was no democratic competition. He rose to power in the days of the USSR, where he learnt his trade, and the collapse of the old regime did not interrupt his rule. Human rights groups accuse the government of serious human rights abuses. Amnesty International reports the arbitrary detention of opposition political figures, human rights defenders, devout Muslims (often accused of being "Wahhabists") and homosexuals. Indeed there are over 6,000 political and religious prisoners in the country. Detainees are frequently the victim of torture and ill-treatment, including having bits of skin and flesh ripped off with pliers, having needles driven under their fingernails, being left to stand for a fortnight in freezing water or even being boiled to death.

Amnesty reports that "upon arrival at a prison camp suspected 'Wahhabists' or suspected members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir [one of the Islamic opposition parties] are separated from other prisoners and made to run between two lines of guards who beat them with truncheons as they pass". In August 2000, the Uzbek military rounded up and resettled thousands of Tajik inhabitants from mountain villages in the southern Surhandarynsk region near the border with Tajikistan, which they alleged had been infiltrated by Islamic militants. Amnesty reported that "the villages were set on fire and bombed, livestock were killed, houses and fields destroyed".

Remember, it was it was apparently because of atrocities not unlike these that NATO bombed Serbia, even the excuses are essentially the same with only the names of the "terrorist" groups changed. Nonetheless the West is not getting ready to attack Karimov and his government to show him the error of his ways. In fact US assistance to Uzbekistan has been extensive ($1bn since 1992) and has increased massively since September 11th. In 2002, it received $500 million, of which $79 million went to the police and intelligence services, who are responsible for most of the torture. The US claims that its engagement with Karimov will encourage him to respect human rights, however, as George Monbiot notes, "he recognises that the protection of the world's most powerful government permits him to do whatever he wants. Indeed, the US State Department now plays a major role in excusing his crimes."

Under legislation enacted by the US Congress in July 2002, the State Department was required to report to Congress on the progress of the Uzbek government for $45 million in additional aid to the country. This report listed the improvements had made, but was criticised by Human Rights Watch for exaggerating "Uzbekistan's human rights gains, evidently in order to maintain foreign assistance to that country's government." They alleged that, "In determining progress in these areas, the State Department listed a number of steps taken by Uzbekistan in response to U.S. concerns. Yet for each step cited, Uzbek authorities have adopted repressive measures that undermine its impact." "The State Department did not use this law as it was intended," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "We expected a proactive effort. All we got was a pro-forma report."

Earlier this year it appeared that concerns about the extent of human rights abuses in the country might cause it to lose its $100m (£55m) annual US aid. Reports suggested that come April the State Department was set to recommend that funds to Uzbekistan be stopped because there had been no progress towards ending police torture and other abuses. Nonetheless many believe that US expressions of support in the aftermath of this weeks attacks suggest that Karimov may get the aid regardless.

Britain's role in the whole affair and specifically that of Tony Blair, "the man who claims that human rights are so important that they justify going to war" (Monbiot) has been little more than contemptible. At the beginning of 2002 Uzbekistan was granted an open licence to import whatever weapons it wanted from the United Kingdom. There have also been moves to censure British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has been highly critical Karimov's policy of torture and repression.

His comments led to him being recalled and accused of a string of alleged disciplinary offences and invited to resign. Among the charges were accusations of his backing an overstayer's visa application, womanising and drinking and driving an embassy Land Rover down some lakeside steps. Whitehall sources, however, claim that he has been reprimanded for "talking about the charges to embassy colleagues". Mr Murray came under so much pressure that he had to spend time in a psychiatric ward. According to a senior government source, this pressure was exerted at least in part "on the orders of No 10". The charges have subsequently been dropped and he has returned to his job, although he is not supposed to speak to journalists (a requirement he has already breached) and he is currently considering legal action the British Government.

Through the 1980's the West provided extensive support to Saddam Hussein and his regime including arms sales, intelligence, credit with few illusions as to his intentions. The consequences of that support for the population of Iraq, the region and indeed the wider world continue to be felt. It is tragic to think that our leaders are making the same 'mistakes' again. As if that wasn't bad enough, our support for Uzbekistan is hardly unique. It is not be difficult to find similar examples, of varying degrees of severity, from other countries whose leaders serve Western interests. Consider for instance, Pakistan's "President" Perez Musharraf whose support for the "War on Terror" endeared to him to Bush and Blair despite his thinly veiled contempt for democracy or Western support for the corrupt and autocratic Saudi royal family. Given this reality it is hard to take claims as to the moral basis of Western foreign policy seriously. We are forced to conclude that such claims are at best naïve and at worst a straightforward lie. Whichever, the consequences for the victims are very real, a matter which should be of no little concern to anyone who pays anything more than lip service to basic moral considerations.

See also;
Nick Cohen, 'Trouble in Tashkent', The Observer, 15/12/02
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