President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is one of Central Asian’s most repressive rulers. Yet the US, which claims to be the world’s main protector of human rights, has made him its ‘best friend’ in the region since September 2001.
Karimov’s repressive measures are directed mainly against Islamic movements, and even against devout Muslims who have no direct ties with them–a policy that is likely to recommend itself to a US administration getting most of its support from "born-again" Christians, neo-conservatives and the zionist lobby. Evangelical groups openly seeking the conversion of Muslims are already active in the country, and Islam Karimov, despite his name, is not exactly rearing to stop them.
While evangelical activists can operate in Uzbekistan, Muslim citizens who have no political affiliations and belong to no Islamic group can still not go to mosques without incurring the risk of being arrested. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are about 6,500 political prisoners in Uzbekistan, including many devout Muslims who were arrested only for religious observances. The regime claims that they are ‘militants’ who are determined to overthrow it. Some of the prisoners have died of torture, with two boiled to death last August, as a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy has shown. Other examples of horrific torture are periodically reported.
Two of the men who have been reported as being imprisoned, and tortured merely because they pray regularly, are Abdulkhalil and Ahatkhon. Both were arrested in the Ferghana Valley, where Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) are said to be most active.
Abdulkhalil was arrested last August and sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment. The first time a member of his family was able to see him was in mid-May, when he appeared on a stretcher in a prison hospital. All that he could tell his father was that he had been "kept in water for a long time". Given the battered state of his head and his swollen tongue, it was a miracle that he could even say as much. He, like Ahatkhon, fell victim to the customary brutality of SNB, the Uzbek security service, which was trying to frame them as members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
In early May Ahatkhon was stopped by the police, who held him while members of the SNB filled his coat-pocket with "incriminating evidence". They then called two ‘witnesses’ to see them find the ‘evidence’ on him. This was not enough for the SNB, which also forced him to incriminate four friends, some of whom still bear the signs of the torture they were subjected to.
But it is not only the SNB and the Uzbek police that are furnishing false evidence to sustain the war against the Islamic groups, particularly the IMU. Both Britain and the US, for instance, say that IMU has links with al-Qa’ida, a claim which, even when it is false, is sufficient in their eyes to justify anything. The Americans also claim that IMU regularly targets the US military presence in Kyrgyzstan–a claim that analysts dismiss out of hand.
While the UK is, like other members of the European Union, prepared to do business with Karimov and support the war against Islamic movements, it is not silent on his human-rights violations, and does not fund his anti-Islamic operations or machinery directly. "The intense repression here combined with the inequality of wealth and absence of reform will create the Islamic fundamentalism that the regime is trying to quash," Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said recently.
The US funds Karimov’s war-machine directly. Out of the $500 million Uzbekistan received from the US last year, for instance, $79 million went to the police and intelligence services. The irony was not lost on analysts, who recently cited the description of these services on the US state department’s website as uses of "torture as a routine investigation technique". Equally ironical was a recent statement by a state department official, who said that Uzbekistan had "taken some positive steps", including "registering a human-rights group and a newspaper". He was defending Washington’s relations with Karimov, saying that US policy was "reform through engagement". The truth is, of course, that, far from improving, the human-rights situation is worse than it was under the Soviet Union, as a senior western official recently admitted. "People have less freedom here than under Brezhnev," he said. "The irony is that the US Republican party is supporting the remnants of Brezhnevism as part of their fight against Islamic extremism."
Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, tried to answer accusations of hypocrisy like these when he unveiled the department’s annual report on human rights on April 4. "We do not believe it is inconsistent to work with nations who are willing to assist in this effort who, themselves have some problems with respect to human rights," he said. "We candidly talk to them and encourage them to change."
But Karimov is not willing to change, and–as a result of his cooperation with the US–believes that Washington will side with him against any critic, even other Western governments. When the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development last month warned Karimov that unless he abolished torture and introduced economic reforms, it would cut its aid to Uzbekistan, he shrugged off the warning. European diplomats in Tashkent told the Financial Times that the bank’s tough warning might be undermined by the fact that Uzbekistan sees itself as protected by Washington because it has become a key ally in the US-led war against terrorism.