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Saturday, June 19, 2004

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a regional body which brings together the Russian, Chinese, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz heads of state to coordinate on important issues, with particular focus on anti-terrorism. The body is currently seeking to formalise itself, in part in the hopes of acting as an effective counterweight to US influence in the region. To this end it is holding a summit this week in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

Fearing disruption by activists, concerned about the country's human rights record "the [Uzbek] regime has warned many of them that they will face imprisonment or other unspecified consequences if they demonstrate during the two-day session... which [began] on June 17" (IWPR, 15/6/04). Human Rights Watch reports,
In recent weeks, the Uzbek authorities have broken up peaceful demonstrations here, arbitrarily detained political activists and their children, and stopped picketers from reaching protest sites by preventing them from leaving their homes. Police have also conducted door-to-door "checks" at the homes of human rights defenders and activists, sometimes ordering them to the criminal investigation department for interrogation. In two cases, unidentified assailants have beaten activists in advance of planned protests; prior threats and pressure from the police suggest the attacks were politically motivated. This crackdown intensified as delegates to the summit began arriving in Tashkent last week. (HRW, 17/5/04)
They report that intimidation has even gone as far, in one case, as death threats against activist Bakhodir Choriev, his pregnant wife and children. It should be clear these are hardly trivial matters.

None of this should come as a surprise to who knows anything about Uzbek politics. The country is ruled by Islam Karimov a man who learnt his trade during the days of the USSR and who has maintained his grip on power through widely discredited elections. He has waged a brutal crusade against Islamic extremists which has seen police and intelligence officers torturing suspects, pulling out their fingernails, breaking their fingers, stabbing them with screwdrivers, leaving them standing for a fortnight in freezing water and even in one case boiling them to death. Despite this widespread brutality and flagrant contempt for democracy the country has received extensive western support. The US has given Karimov more than a billion dollars since the collapse of communism, half of it since September 11th. Britain has hardly been any better in this regard. In early 2003 Tony Blair extended an open licence to Karimov to import any weapons he wanted from the UK and when British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray spoke out against the abuses taking place in the country the Government went to great efforts to censure him, so far without success.

US supplementary aid to the Uzbek government is conditional on "substantial and continuing progress" in the field of human rights, and the Bush administration is required to certify that this criteria is being fulfilled every six months. There was talk earlier this year of this certification not being given, although it appears that in light of the terrorist attacks which rocked the country in April that it is likely to go through. Whatever the outcome, Karimov is clearly concerned about whether or not western support will continue. According to David Lewis, director of the International Crisis Group (ICG)
Uzbekistan has the tensest relationship with America, despite their strategic partnership agreement. He says that ties have been complicated by the former?s failure to improve its human rights record. Lewis reckons relations between the two could become even more strained if the Democrats triumph in the US presidential elections, which is why "Uzbekistan is turning to the east". (IWPR, 15/6/04)
This turn to the east lies behind the country's involvement in the SCO and suggests that a break with the west is not impossible. I would argue that western activists should seek to encourage this by putting pressure on their governments. There is no guarantee that such a break will bring an end to the human rights abuses or move the country substantially towards democracy, although it is to be hoped that such a break might cause elements of the Uzbek elite to reconsider what the government is doing. However, this is hardly the point. The question is a straightforward moral one: do we wish to support Karimov's crimes? I think the answer should be obvious.

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