Spotlight on Uzbekistan

With another Central Asian nation suddenly in the news and the outbreak of violence causing hundreds of deaths (blamed both on Muslim extremists and the army), let’s take a look at this virtually ignored country in the region.

As widely reported, Uzbek President Islam Karimov is a staunch ally in George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” since giving the Americans the use of an airbase in 2001. Washington cut some financial aid in 2004 and announced that the Uzbek leader had failed to meet certain human rights targets.

Karimov is a dictator, however, who runs a one-party police state, making a mockery of Bush’s message of spreading democracy around the world. When democracy suits, in other words. Short-term military needs appear to be America’s priority, said John Schoeberlein, head of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard University in 2002. “The Uzbek government is serious in recognizing the need to satisfy the US on this…but it is not sincere. Basically, it’s just PR.”

After 9/11, Washington and Tashkent formed a mutually agreeable relationship in their battle against Muslim extremism. American officials claim that closeness with regimes such as Uzbekistan allows greater ability to press for human rights improvements. In theory this may be true, but the reality is far removed from this utopian vision. Human rights campaigners in the country bristled at the sight of Karimov travelling to the White House in 2002 and receiving thanks from Bush for his anti-terror coalition.

The human rights abuses are notorious. Evidence has emerged that America has sent “terrorist” suspects to Uzbekistan for “interrogation”, while the US government issues reports outlining the gross violations in the country’s jails. The New York Times reported earlier this month about Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. Murray complained to his former British superiors of the use of torture in gathering intelligence.

“Mr. Murray, who has previously spoken publicly about prisoner transfers to Uzbekistan, said his superiors in London were furious with his questions, and he was told that the intelligence gleaned in Uzbekistan could still be used by British officials, even if it was elicited by torture, as long as the mistreatment was not at the hands of British interrogators. ‘I was astonished,’ Mr. Murray said in an interview. ‘It was as if the goal posts had moved. Their perspective had changed since Sept. 11.'”

The US State Department’s most recent report on human rights in Uzbekistan found the following: “Torture was common in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts.”

Comments in 2004 by Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the US Joint Chief of Staffs, perfectly explained the attitude of the US towards despotic regimes. The US had “benefited greatly from our partnership and strategic relationship with Uzbekistan”, he said. And after explaining the concerns over human rights abuses, the following: “In my view, we shouldn’t let any single issue drive a relationship with any single country. It doesn’t seem to be good policy to me.”

And America wonders why an increasing number of countries, including Russia, reject the Bush doctrine of spreading freedom and democracy around the world and charge Bush with double-standards. Hypocrisy never gets a country anywhere, least of all respect. But then, America has never been very good at learning from history.

UPDATE: Craig Murray explains the context of the current political unrent:

“The US will fund ‘human rights’ training in Uzbekistan but not help for the democratic opposition, in contrast to its policy elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. When Jon Purnell, the US ambassador, last year attended the opening of a human rights centre in the Ferghana valley, he interrupted a local speaker criticising repression. Political points, Purnell opined, were not allowed. The western news agenda has moved the dead of Andijan from the ‘democrat’ to the ‘terrorist’ pile. Karimov remains in power. The White House will be happy. That’s enough for No 10.”

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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