Human rights a casualty of Uzbek terror fight

Security: While understandably worried about attacks, the Central Asian nation goes too far in its treatment of suspects, critics charge.

October 20, 2004|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - A few days after a startling series of bombings and street battles here, police came early one April morning for Nilufar Khaidarova.

In a largely Muslim country in Central Asia that boasts of its secularism and its alliance with the United States, she stood out in some people's eyes for always keeping her hair covered and cloaking herself in shapeless gowns, fashions of a more conservative Islam.

Her parents recall 20 armed security officers surrounding the house. Four of them pinned her against a wall while the others poured into the small courtyard to begin searching every square foot of the property, accompanied by two official witnesses.

During the search, authorities said later, they found a leaflet from an outlawed religious group.

Security officials were understandably on high alert. At the end of March, a bomb exploded in the ancient trading city of Bukhara, followed a day later by two suicide bombings here in the capital, attacks that seemed targeted specifically against police. Government forces waged street battles against fighters they couldn't identify but who were all too clearly willing to die for their cause. More than 40 people were killed in the bombings and gunbattles.

The bombers' cause remained a mystery because there were so many possibilities.

Its cities' famous outposts along the Silk Road, its people among the most experienced traders in Central Asia, Uzbekistan now is using its alliance with the United States in the war on terrorism as a weapon against enemies both real and possibly imagined at home.

After bombings here in 1999, the government plausibly blamed a radical armed group supported by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan that sought the violent overthrow of the government. After the Taliban's fall in late 2001, authorities changed their focus to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic organization advocating restoration of Islamic rule throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.

But many Uzbeks also saw their country's deepening poverty, the pervasive official corruption that begins at the level of traffic policemen and travels upward, and the government's own repressive policies as other seeds for the attacks. Uzbeks complain that given the desperate lack of well-paying jobs and an intolerance for meaningful dissent, the government all but made the attacks inevitable.

Uzbekistan possessed all the ingredients to become the richest, most confident of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. It has gold, bumper crops of cotton, ample supplies of natural gas, dependable surpluses of vegetables. It also has tangible evidence of its alliance with the United States. Weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Uzbekistan granted the Pentagon rights to a former Soviet airbase just across the border from Afghanistan; about 1,000 American military personnel are stationed there.

But the government shows little confidence in its own standing. President Islam Karimov, former head of the Uzbek Communist Party, kept virtually all of his powers when the country gained independence in 1991. He was elected head of state in December 1991 in a vote that foreign observers judged neither free nor fair; his term has been extended twice, to 2007, in referendums deemed just as flawed.

This is not a failed state in the category of Afghanistan, or even close to that. Unlike neighboring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan avoided open fighting between rival clans; unlike neighboring Turkmenistan, it has not created a suffocating cult of personality around its president. It maintains good relations with Russia and China as well as the United States, with Israel as well as most of the Arab world.

It sees grave threats, though, in would-be political opposition and in public displays of religious zeal. In fighting forces it deems terrorists, the government has jailed thousands of people and dealt with them harshly once in custody. Diplomats here estimate the number of political prisoners - people jailed for their presumed beliefs, or for books or printed materials allegedly found in their possession - at about 7,000.

In detaining and questioning those suspects, the government has compiled a dismal record in human rights.

The U.S. State Department, in its most recent human rights report, judged the government's practices "very poor"; the government, it said, "continued to commit numerous serious abuses." The Bush administration in July cut $18 million in military and economic aid because of the government's failure to make meaningful improvements.

After the bombings here and in Bukhara, the government arrested hundreds of people, including Khaidarova. Human rights workers said many of the arrests were made without required warrants; relatives of some of those arrested alleged that police also planted religious pamphlets, bullets and other "evidence" while the families watched.

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