Tuesday, 16 March 2004

The West Is Far Too Kind to Uzbekistan's Tyrant

This article originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune on 16 March 2004.

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"I didn't want to leave my home," a friend e-mailed me a few weeks ago, "but Uzbekistan doesn't give me a choice."

After the police got rough and threatened to arrest him, he decided it would be best to leave the country right away. Given that torture by the law enforcement agencies in Uzbekistan is "systematic" - to borrow a word from the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Theo van Boven - my friend, a journalist who had tried to investigate police abuses for an international news agency, was wise to get out while he could.

Kind treatment, however, has been the approach of the international community toward the Uzbek regime. Despite having promised in recent years that it would mend its ways, the government of Uzbekistan has not made any improvements to its appalling human rights record or undertaken any substantial reforms to fix the deteriorating economy. Yet visiting officials - from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Monetary Fund - seem to believe that Uzbekistan is making progress when it clearly is not.

The human rights situation is particularly disturbing. In addition to engaging in systematic torture, the police regularly harass journalists, nongovernment workers, human rights activists and those brave or foolish enough to try to develop opposition political parties. Media freedom is nil; more than a dozen journalists are in prison on a variety of unlikely charges.

It is safe to say those charges are fabricated, because so many charges in the Uzbek courts are. To fulfill absurd crime-solving quotas, the police will haul in any poor soul who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police often use false allegations simply to elicit bribes from the hapless, who have no choice but to pay up or face jail.

As the Uzbek economy declines, the police are increasing their demands for bribes, pushing many into utter penury. While a few people close to President Islam Karimov enjoy a near economic monopoly, 80 percent of the country lives in poverty. The average salary is equivalent to $40 dollars a month, the lowest in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the IMF established benchmarks for Uzbekistan to reform its economy, but these have been rejected, ignored or only superficially implemented. The regime's commitments to political and economic liberalization in bilateral agreements with the United States and other Western countries have also come to nothing. It is time for the international community to drop its ineffective soft approach and get more hard-edged in dealing with Uzbekistan.

The State Department needs to say unequivocally to Congress that it can no longer certify Uzbekistan's progress toward political liberalization and human rights improvements under the Foreign Operations Act. It should also outline steps that the Uzbek government would need to take to ensure a renewal of aid by December 2004, including determined and public action against torture, the participation of independent political parties in parliamentary elections in December, and an end to media harassment and censorship.

In the meantime, Washington should suspend American aid to Uzbek security and law enforcement agencies, which amounted to $79 million in 2002 and more than $30 million in 2003, except where vital for international security.

A new approach to Uzbekistan may at first glance appear problematic for Washington. Karimov is seen as a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism and there are U.S. bases in Uzbekistan. But cozying up to the repressive regime in Uzbekistan is doing serious long-term damage to the image of the United States in this important, predominantly Muslim region. At the same time, the deteriorating socio-economic environment is provoking a rising tide of popular frustration, which fosters support for radical Islamist groups.

A U.S. shift of gears is urgently needed. The situation in Uzbekistan took a turn for the worse late last year, and harassment of those the regime feels are its enemies has increased. Uzbeks look on with increasing incomprehension as the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world, continues to support and praise the repressive regime they live under.

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