Central Asia: Independent and Troubled The Worst Human Rights Record UZBEKISTAN

February 28, 1993|By WILL ENGLUND | WILL ENGLUND,Will Englund is a Moscow correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.

Tashkent, Uzbekistan. -- The mindless pop music thumps away at the "Istanbul" cellar restaurant here; the prostitutes conscientiously ply their trade at the hard-currency hotel; the markets groan with melons, carrots, spices and pistachios -- all in all, it doesn't really look like a police state.

But the government is cracking down on its scattered opposition here with a vengeance.

Jailings, beatings and rigged trials are giving Uzbekistan -- the largest and most important of the new countries of Central Asia -- the worst human rights record of any former Soviet republic not now engulfed in a shooting war.

Uzbekistan's internal crackdown has sharply intensified this month, driving even the moderate opposition nearly to desperation.

"We are pressed to the wall. And we have only one way to carry on," Mukhammad Salikh, leader of the only legal opposition party, said in a recent interview.

"Now is the time of confrontation. The time of dialogue is over.

"We kept silent for a year and a half because we feared bloodshed. But now, even if our blood is spilled, we will go the streets. It's our only course. We have no weapons, we have no regiments, no squadrons, but we will come out with our bare hands."

The day after making that declaration in his office, Mr. Salikh was hauled in for a series of police interrogations, during which, he later said, he was told he would be beaten or killed if he didn't keep quiet.

Since then he has gone into hiding.

Uzbekistan could hold the key to all of Central Asia's future. With 22 million people, fertile farmland and a smattering of natural resources, as well as its central location, it is the natural kingpin of the region.

Clearly the government of President Islam Karimov sees itself as playing a leading role. Uzbekistan has provided the communist forces in Tajikistan with moral and material support throughout the fighting there. The government portrays the Tajik rebels as dangerous Islamic fanatics -- and has now taken to describing its own opposition the same way.

Uzbekistan's government casts itself as a bulwark against religious extremism, prepared to use whatever means are necessary to preserve a secular state. Incessantly, it uses the example of war-torn Tajikistan as a hammer with which to pound its opponents.

Leaders of the opposition -- most of whom are now in jail or on the run -- say they want a democratic state, not a religious one. They portray the struggle in Uzbekistan as one that pits a repressive, holdover regime against the inexorable rise of democracy and freedom that is sweeping across the world.

The government dismisses that argument out of hand.

This month, the government shut down the only remaining independent newspaper. It drove the leadership of the democratically oriented Erk ("Will") Party -- the only legal opposition party -- underground. A member of parliament was expelled from the legislature and put on trial on charges of "hooliganism" and resisting arrest. Another, also expelled from parliament, was beaten and forcibly evicted from his apartment, along with his wife and three children, even though they own it.

Four leaders of the Birlik ("Unity") movement, are languishing in jail, awaiting trial on charges of anti-government activity. Birlik itself was suspended for three months in January.

And, Thursday, the government began the trial of Vasilya Inoyatova, a Birlik office worker who is accused of "defaming" the president in a poem she wrote last June. If convicted, she could face six years in prison.

"Let them give me six years in jail," she said defiantly. "I will never regret it. I know very well that I am right. I'm proud of it. I thank God I had the chance to do it."

In fact, though, opposition leaders are floored by the crackdown. Theirs has never been a strong movement. They are, for the most part, intellectuals -- many of whom studied in Russia. They concede that among ordinary Uzbeks the government remains relatively popular.

Why, they ask, are they being hounded so relentlessly?

A foreign ministry official, Akhmadzhan Lukmanov, said that the government was forced to take strict measures against its opponents because their "uncivilized" protests and "lust for power."

And, inevitably, he raised the specter of Tajikistan. Uzbekistan, he said, must not allow itself to slide into civil war. Only a strong hand can prevent it.

"This Tajik lesson teaches Uzbekistan a great deal," said Mr. Lukmanov. "If there are [human rights] violations, you say they are harsh measures, but really they are normal."

Mr. Salikh has promised that the battered Erk Party would not give up. Despite its reputation for cautious moderation, he said, it would be taking to the streets with protests in the next several weeks.

But it's an open question how many will answer the call.

"Politics? We have no politics," said Munira Uldashova, a vendor at Tashkent's open market. Her counter was piled with yellow carrots, a specialty, and her quick broad smile revealed a mouth full of gold teeth.

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