Shockwaves are continuing to reverberate around the Republic of Uzbekistan following the recent arrest of human rights Ruslan Sharipov, one of the last independent critics of the repressive government of this former Soviet Central Asian state. While Sharipov has been charged with homosexuality - which is illegal in Uzbekistan - few doubt that the real reason for the arrest was that he had dared to call for reform of the human rights policies of the regime of President Islam Karimov.
And reform is urgently needed. The human rights record of Karimov - the former hard-line communist boss who has ruled the republic since independence in 1991 - is appalling. According to the UN, torture of political opponents and religious dissenters is 'systematic', with arbitrary arrests, intimidation, extortion and extra-judicial killings by police commonplace. In January 2003 Human Rights Watch reported 7,000 prisoners of conscience in Uzbek jails. These include secular and Islamist political opponents of the regime, human rights activists, journalists, and environmental campaigners: indeed, anyone who has dared to voice criticism of the President (who, ironically, drafted the constitution declaring that 'censorship is impermissible' ). Furthermore, courts have detained large numbers of otherwise apolitical pious Muslims whom Karimov feared might pose a threat at some point in the future.
The response of the 'Western' world to these abuses is confused. This May Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent hosted the AGM of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Headquartered in London, the EBRD was established following the collapse of the Soviet Union to support former communist countries in making the 'transition' to capitalist democracies. After human rights bodies lambasted the decision to meet in Tashkent - fearing that Karimov would use Uzbekistan's largest ever international conference as a platform to boost his own standing - the EBRD weakly justified the decision as an incentive to spur reform in Uzbekistan.
The human rights bodies were right. In a major propaganda coup, President Karimov used his opening address to laud the development of Uzbekistan, claiming that the meeting in Tashkent was evidence that censorship had been abolished and reforms were successfully being implemented. But even while the conference was proceeding, Uzbek officials were harassing and detaining human rights activists.
The preparedness of the Minority World to turn a blind eye while this was happening was explained in the conference speeches. Karimov stressed Uzbekistan's support for the US 'war on terror' and the invasion of Iraq. Since September 2001Uzbekistan has emerged as Washington's most loyal ally in the region, allowing US forces to establish a base in the country to mount operations in Afghanistan. As a reward, "aid" has been increased and repression overlooked. In his conference speech, US Treasury Under Secretary John Taylor ignored Uzbekistan's baleful human rights record, stressing instead that the US was 'Uzbekistan's friend', and reserving its only criticism for the EBRD itself.
With such US backing affirmed, President Karimov is still celebrating a conference that has consolidated his hold on power. Meanwhile, Ruslan Sharipov awaits his fate in an Uzbek jail, a forgotten victim of the 'war on terror'.