Harsh words for U.S. ally

Uzbekistan: Three recent reports criticize the Central Asian country for human rights abuses.

March 31, 2004|By Kathy Lally

Even as the United States recruited Uzbekistan as an ally in its war against terrorism, it has criticized the Central Asian nation for human rights abuses - including the harassment of Muslim dissidents.

Uzbekistan, a traditionally Muslim former republic of the Soviet Union, lies in a region important to the West. It touches Afghanistan, a part of the world where the United States has an interest in making Muslim friends rather than enemies.

Now, with Uzbekistan in the news after three days of bombings and police skirmishes that have left at least 42 dead, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has issued a report contradicting the Uzbek government's assertions that Muslim dissidents' arrests have been necessary to prevent terrorism.

The 319-page report, presented yesterday in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, after several years of research, is called "Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan." It draws attention to the complexities of containing Islamic extremism while avoiding suppression of religion in countries without a democratic tradition.

Following are excerpts from the Human Rights Watch report (www.hrw.org); from a study published yesterday by the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net), which suggests Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states are exploiting the war on terrorism to justify human rights abuses; and from the U.S. State Department's 2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (www.state.gov/g/drl/hr/), released last month.

Human Rights Watch

For the past decade, with increasing intensity, the government of Uzbekistan has persecuted independent Muslims. This campaign of religious persecution has resulted in the arrest, torture, public degradation and incarceration in grossly inhumane conditions of an estimated 7,000 people.

The campaign targets nonviolent believers who preach or study Islam outside the official institutions and guidelines. ... The most numerous targets were adherents of the nonviolent group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), whose teachings in favor of an Islamic state the government finds seditious.

In the early and mid-1990s, the government justified the repression of independent Islam as an effort to preserve secularism. Beginning in 1998 it referred to the need to prevent terrorism, and today the Uzbek government places the arrests firmly in the context of the global campaign against terrorism begun in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. ...

Government officials have referred to the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent and the 1999 and 2000 armed incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to justify their intolerance of "Islamic extremism" generally and to cast the net of arrests ever wider in their attempts to eliminate any perceived threat to their power by observant Muslims. ...

Despite the government's assertion that these prosecutions are a response to terrorism, in the vast majority of cases we researched, those imprisoned were not charged with terrorism or even with committing any act of violence. The need to prevent terrorism cannot justify persecution of religious dissent, nor can it justify policies of collective punishment that lead to the arrest of suspects' parents, siblings and spouses. ...

By fall 2000 government officials routinely justified the campaign to arrest independent Muslims as necessary to protect the country from violent attack by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. ... An armed, militant organization, the IMU seeks the overthrow of the [President Islam] Karimov government through violent means. It was founded in 1997 and is led by political and religious activists who fled Uzbekistan in 1992 under threat of arrest following a crackdown in the Fergana Valley. ...

The Uzbek government has frequently claimed that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir form a united movement, though it has never presented any material evidence to prove this is the case. ...

Both the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir have an Islamic agenda and have criticized the Karimov administration's crackdown on independent Islam. The two organizations are separate and unique, however, with markedly different aims and methods. In contrast to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the IMU has espoused and used violence to advance its goal of overthrowing the Karimov government ... while Hizb ut-Tahrir has an avowed commitment to peaceful action only and has repeatedly decried the use of violence to attain its goals.

Institute for War and Peace Reporting

American engagement with the Central Asian states - key allies in the "war on terror" - is being misrepresented and exploited by regional governments, whose actions are fueling instability in the region, local and international analysts believe.

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