Two weeks ago, four days of violence shook the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. Bombings, shootings and suicide attacks were carried out against officers of the Uzbek police force in the Uzbek capital Tashkent and the ancient city of Bukhara. The attacks, attributed to Islamic extremists, coincided neatly with the March 30th release of a 319 page Human Rights Watch report prophetically entitled "Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan". The report, the product of five years work is by turns horrific, depressing, wearying in its repetitiveness and, at times, blackly comic. The report helps to explain the carnage of last week, which left 47 dead and many injured.
The report details the campaign of religious persecution prosecuted against much of the Uzbek population by the President of Uzbekistan: Islam Karimov. A campaign characterised by torture, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and death. A campaign that is funded and supported by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom.
The targets of the campaign are "independent Muslims": those who do not subscribe to the state sanctioned form of Islam. In particular, since 1998, the Uzbek security forces have been waging war against the members of Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of liberation) a non-violent Islamic party that seeks the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. Uzbekistan's chief prosecutor Rashid Kadyrov blamed the group for the recent violence (1) although the attack has since been claimed by the previously unknown Jihad Islamic Group who stated that their action "came as a response to the injustice and brutality practiced by the infidel leaders in this country." (2)
The initial targets of the campaign were Uzbekistan's independent Imams and their followers. Subsequently all Muslims considered by the authorities to be too "devout" have been targeted. They are accused of Wahhabism by the government (although this should be understood as a pejorative term, since the number of actual Wahhabis in Uzbekistan is miniscule). There are estimated to be around 7000 religious prisoners currently held in Uzbekistan. (3) The prisons of Uzbekistan are notoriously inhumane, and many prisoners die of tuberculosis and other diseases while incarcerated. Prisoners are also routinely beaten and tortured, particularly those held on religious grounds who are made to wear badges denoting their particular status.
Under the old SSRU (Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan), of which Karimov was President, religious practice was discouraged, mosques closed down and religious figures persecuted. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a brief period of freedom and openness with many new mosques established throughout Uzbekistan. President Karimov even appeared to encourage the new era of tolerance - holding the Koran as he was sworn in as President of the new republic in 1991. (4) However freedom did not last long in the new republic; the brief period of religious tolerance faded in 1992 when civil war broke out in neighbouring Tajikistan. The bloody civil war, a conflict between the old communist apparatus and Islamic groups allied to pro-democracy activists, gave Karimov an opportunity to crack down on internal threats to his rule - for the familiar reasons of security. Human Rights Watch report that Karimov repeatedly emphasized the chaos in Tajikistan; warning the Uzbek population that:
"Tajikistan will come to Uzbekistan tomorrow." (5)
The Uzbek government proceeded to outlaw all opposition parties and censored the press. The largely impoverished people of Uzbekistan now live under what Malika Kenjaboeva calls "Stalinism without state benefits." (6) It has been suggested by some that life is worse under Karimov than under the old Brezhnev supported regime. (7) Human Rights Watch ask us to go back further than the Brezhnev regime to find a counterpart to the "hate rallies" that are staged against independent Muslims:
"Public denunciations of independent Muslims organized by the Karimov government echoed meetings held during the Soviet era. In particular the gatherings mirrored those in the late 1920s and 1930s that condemned individuals whose behaviour was contrary to the goals and dictates of the Communist Party or whose social origins made them "enemies of the people." (8)
Karimov presides over an essentially dictatorial system with (as throughout the region) some symbolic institutions, offering a pretence of democracy. This pretence is at times comical in its amateurishness; Karimov's challenger in the 2000 presidential elections, Abdulhafiz Dzhalalov, actually voted for Karimov. Explaining his decision Dzhalalov, another former communist official, told reporters that:
"I voted for stability, peace, our nation's independence, for the development of Uzbekistan," he said.
"So as paradoxical as it may sound, I voted for Islam Karimov."
Asked why he had bothered to run at all Dzhalalov explained:
"I ran so that democracy would win." (9)
Or so that the appearance of democracy would be achieved, a cynic might say.
With Dzhalalov's help Karimov went on to win the election with more than 90% of the vote.
Corruption is rife in the republic, relatives of detainees often have to bribe prison and court officials to see their relatives. Human Rights Watch recount the following example:
"One female relative of independent Muslim prisoner Tavakkaljon Akhmedov reported that courthouse guards demanded bribes from family members who wanted to attend his trial: "We paid to attend the trial. We put one packet of cigarettes and some money in our passports [when we handed them to the guards]." Later, during this trial, co-defendant Nematullo Bobokhonov testified that today's society in Uzbekistan is marred by corruption and prostitution. "When the judge asked Bobokhonov for proof of corruption, no one spoke up, even though we had all paid a bribe to be there," said an observer." (10)
The persecution of independent Muslims was codified and made official policy with the 1998 "Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations." (11) The law criminalises a variety of religious activities, (though calling them "activities" does stretch the definition somewhat). Proscribed behaviour includes the exchange of religious literature (such material is officially considered contraband), (12) the carrying out of religious rites by anyone other than members of the official clergy, proselytising and even the wearing of religious attire is illegal (13) - the wearing of the hijab is surely a grave threat to state security.
Suspects are commonly arrested on trumped up charges. Typically drugs or ammunition are planted on suspects or in their homes; some Uzbeks are apparently so familiar with the tactic that they have taken to sewing up their pockets to prevent police officers from planting evidence on them. (14)
Suspects are then incarcerated, often without their families being told where. In some instances detainees have simply disappeared without being heard from again. Detainees are routinely tortured, most often they are beaten though in many cases prisoners have been raped and also subjected to electric shock amongst other methods.
According to HRW at least twenty prisoners were raped in Kashkadaria prison in 2002. Following complaints from the prisoners a Colonel S. Islamov of the Ministry of Internal affairs visited the facility and addressed the assembled prisoners:
"If someone was raped, it's in the past, it's not necessary to talk about it to everyone like sluts. We are not scared of any commissions, whether it's from the 'Red Cross' or the U.N. - we don't give a shit" (15)
Perhaps the Colonel was crudely expressing the understanding of the Uzbek authorities that while US support remains atrocities can continue despite the condemnation from humanitarian bodies.
In the earlier years of the campaign detainees were often charged with possession of drugs and ammunition. These days, however such charges are usually dropped by the time the detainees get to court, where they are accused of prohibited religious activity under the 1998 law. This perhaps reflects the increasing confidence of the Uzbek government who have been emboldened by the continuing and, post 9/11, increasing support from the United States.
Prisoners are discouraged and sometimes simply prevented from obtaining legal council. Human Rights Watch report that a defendant accused of Wahhabism was denied council by the arresting officers who asked him:
"Why do you want a lawyer? You'll die in prison anyway." (16)
To be fair to the officers their question was not entirely unreasonable since the likelihood of being acquitted in an Uzbek court are close to zero - lawyer or no lawyer. One Uzbek attorney remarked in court that:
"Today, my new defendant was beaten and forced to reject his lawyerâ€¦It's no use to go and see defendants. They are so scared they can't say the truth and the lawyers can't help. Lawyers meet in the presence of investigators, and a defendant can't open his mouth. Even if there are ten lawyers, with today's existing regime, nothing will change." (17)
There is no meaningful separation of powers in Uzbekistan and judges are known to prejudge cases. HRW recount the case of twelve men suspected of membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir in May 1999. Whilst one of the defendants was testifying the judge interrupted to ask him the age of the man's daughter. When the man replied informing the judge that she was still a young girl the judge remarked that:
"By the time you get out of prison, she'll be grown up and married." (18)
The United States provides Uzbekistan with millions of dollars of largely non-humanitarian aid. On the website of the US State Department can be found a breakdown of the US financial assistance programme to the Uzbek government during 2003. (19) Out of a budget of $86.1 million $30.2 million is earmarked for "Security & Law Enforcement"; that is it is earmarked for the torturers and murderers of the Uzbek security forces. To be fair to the United States $14.7 million is earmarked for democracy programmes, almost half as much as the 'security' funding. (20) However a spokesman for Human Rights Watch argued that this assistance is essentially a cosmetic measure the aim of which is to secure safe passage of the assistance programme through congress:
"I would deny there has been any real progressâ€¦ The steps are basically window dressing used to get the funding through the US Congress's ethical laws. Nothing has changed on the ground."(20)
The United States can hardly plead ignorance since elsewhere on the website can be found a report on human rights practice in Uzbekistan during 2002 by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Here is what the report has to say on torture in Uzbekistan:
"Police and the NSS routinely tortured, beat, and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions or incriminating information. Police and the NSS allegedly used suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse; however, beating was the most commonly reported method of torture." (21)
The United Kingdom for its part is Uzbekistan's second trading partner after Russia. (22) The website of the British foreign office lists companies which are active in Uzbekistan; they include British American Tobacco; Marconi/Buzton; PriceWaterhouseCoopers; Xerox and the leading arms manufacturer BAE systems ("The systems company innovating for a safer world"); amongst many others. (23)
The foreign office like the US state department is clear on the reality of the Uzbek regime:
"Uzbekistan's human rights record is poor. The Government has used the limited appeal of Islamic extremism as a pretext for repression. Genuine opposition parties are banned or prevented from registeringâ€¦ the press and mass media are subject to de facto censorship." (24)
The reasons for US support for the Karimov regime are not obscure. The United States maintains a "temporary" airbase at Khanabad in the south of the country, which was used during the attack on Afghanistan. Khanabad was formerly a Soviet airbase used in an earlier assault on the Afghan people. The US also has helicopters, planes and a limited ground force based at Chrichnik ground and air base and also at Tuzel airfield. Global security.org outline Uzbekistan's broader strategic significance:
"The United Statesâ€¦ values Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region; a market for U.S. exports; a producer of important resources-gold, uranium, natural gas; and a regional hub for pipelines, transportation, communications, and other infrastructure in which U.S. firms seek a leading role."
Whilst the alliance between the two nations is typically assumed to be a product of the post 9/11 war on terror, the relationship in fact extends much further back. In order to coordinate its various relationship spheres with Uzbekistan the United States established a "U.S.-Uzbekistan Joint Commission" in 1998 - the year of the new religion law. (25)
The United Kingdom for its part has significant commercial links with Uzbekistan as detailed above. Secondly, here as elsewhere in the world, the UK's role is to support the position of the United States, the UK having long since abandoned an independent foreign policy.
Whilst we heard much from British and American politicians on the horrors of the former Iraqi regime, criticism of Uzbekistan has been conspicuous by its absence. In April whilst lecturing German diplomats and politicians Donald Rumsfeld asked his audience toâ€¦
"Think of what was going on in Iraq a year ago with people being tortured, rape rooms, mass graves . . ." Yet, he said, "there were prominent people from representative countries in this room that opined that they really didn't think it made a hell of a lot of difference who won. Shocking, absolutely shocking". (26)
Later that month, ahead of a scheduled meeting between Rumsfeld and President Karimov in Tashkent, Human Rights Watch called on Rumsfeld to condemn the abuses of the Karimov regime:
"Many will now be looking to Rumsfeld to deliver a consistent message on U.S. policy toward Uzbekistanâ€¦Will he clearly say that repressive Uzbek government policies are wrong and will ultimately undermine stability in that country? Or will he stay silent on political repression and torture, sending an unwitting green light to the government?" (27)
Rumsfeld opted for the latter; during the press conference following his meeting with Karimov Rumsfeld was presented with an opportunity to condemn the policies of the regime, he chose instead to say nothing:
"REUTEURS: Sir, did you discuss human rights with the President and the other officials?
RUMSFELD: In all our meetings, the broad range of topics were discussed, the political and human rights issues, as well as, economic issues and military-to-military issues. Yesâ€¦"
Rumsfeld went on to praise our new ally:
"We have benefited greatly in our efforts in the global war on terror and in Afghanistan from the wonderful cooperation we've received from the Government of Uzbekistan." (28)
The UK government has taken a similar (non) position on Uzbek human rights. In a house of commons debate on Uzbekistan Simon Thomas MP commented that Uzbekistan has "perhaps a worse human rights record than Zimbabwe." (29) Whilst Tony Blair has been outspokenly critical of the Mugabe regime and pushed hard for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth he has said exactly nothing about our new ally. A database search of all British newspapers reveals that Tony Blair has not once commented on Karimov or his regime.
The most prominent British figure to have taken a principled stand on the regime is the British ambassador in Tashkent- Craig Murray. (30) On the British embassy website can be found the full text of a speech Murray gave on the 17th of October 2002. Whilst detailing the varied abuses of the Karimov regime Murray remarked that:
"Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracyâ€¦ There is little sign of genuine positive change in Human Rights." (31)
Murray's repeated criticism of the regime reportedly drew the ire of the US administration, which allegedly pressed for the ambassador's removal. At the end of last year Murray was recalled to London where he refused foreign office demands that he resign from his post. He then went back to Uzbekistan only to return days later for medical treatment, it is believed due to stress. Murray was subject to a smear campaign; he was accused of heavy drinking and "misusing a land rover" amongst many other accusations. (32) It is reported that Murray was only allowed to return to his post on condition that he remain silent on Uzbekistan's human rights abuses; The Times reported this month that according to a family friend Murray has been set strict guidelines for his conduct:
"He's been given a list of instructions and threatened with dismissal if he contravenes any of them," the friend said" (33)
Murray is now suing the foreign office over the matter. (34)
The United States and United Kingdom have been describing relations with Uzbekistan as "constructive" since 1991 (though murderous might be a more appropriate adjective). Even the boiling alive of Muzafar Avazov, one of the few cases that received international attention, did not effect a change in policy. Avazov's body was returned to his family by the authorities; his body severely burned and bruised and with a bloody wound to the back of his head. The body had "no fingernails". (35) According to Human Rights Watch, doctor's who saw the body said that the pattern of scalding on the corpse could only have been caused by immersion in boiling water. (36)
In a recent interview with The Times Avazov's 62 year old mother gave a more detailed description of what her son had endured:
"He didn't want to confess to praying five times a day because he didn't consider it a crime, so they put long metal spikes in a canvas bag and beat him with it. Still he didn't confess, so they attached electrodes to his abdomen. Still he didn't confess, he didn't die. So he was put into 25 litres of boiling water, in a bath. When his skin was off they poured disinfectant on him. They removed his fingernails and broke his nose and teeth. There was nowhere on his body that was not covered with bruising and signs of torture." (37)
Avazov's mother chose to speak out about her son's fate, however the authorities did not apologise or offer compensation. Instead they flung her into jail where she languished until, due to international pressure, she was eventually released just hours before Donald Rumsfeld's arrival in the capital.
Rumsfeld was asked if he welcomed her release and also to what extent improvements in human rights in the country would be linked to US military aid. Rumsfeld could have taken this as an opportunity to condemn the imprisoning of the woman and the torture of her son. He could perhaps have taken the more radical step of apologising to Avazov's mother for bankrolling her son's torturers. Instead Rumsfeld had this to say:
"Well obviously our relationship with this country and other countries is multi-faceted. I mentioned the military-to-military relationship because I'm involved with the Department of Defence, but it's also a political and economic relationship. Needless to say the United States and the other NATO countries are always interested in seeing reform not just in the military, but also in the political and economic areas. I'm not intimately knowledgeable about the statement you just made, but my understanding is that from the Ambassador that... that is in fact the case and that the Embassy has expressed their awareness of that, and I forget what the phrase was but ... the Ambassador pointed out that they were pleased that the decision was made." (38)
Shocking one might say.
A sign that attitudes towards Uzbekistan are perhaps changing was heralded this month by the decision of the European Reconstruction and Development Bank to limit its investment in the country, though it will maintain investments that directly affect the local population.
Welcoming the ERDB's decision Human Rights Watch's Rachel Denber remarked that:
"The ERDB has created an important momentum for reform in Uzbekistan that other actors engaged with the country should take advantage of," (39)
It seems however that the United States at least is unlikely to do so. The Independent reported this month that the United States will give Uzbekistan a further $50m (supposedly tied to human rights improvements) next month (40)
An Amnesty International report on the use of the death penalty in Uzbekistan makes clear the effectiveness of international condemnation:
"At least 11 death sentences have been reversed in cases that have been raised by local activists and the international community in the past three years" (41)
However as long as the United Kingdom and the United States remain silent over Uzbekistan, improvements in the country and the prospects for freedom and democracy are likely to remain slight.
1. The Guardian, 7 April 2004.
3. However there have been occasional amnesties - attributed by Human Rights Watch to the overcrowding of Uzbeck prisons rather than to the generosity of the Karimov Government. See Human Rights Watch, 'Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan', p253. The report is available online
4. Human Rights Watch, 'Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan, p19
6. Malika Kenjaboeva, Uzbekistan: Stalinism without state benefits, 29 November 2001.
7. Jeffrey Donovan, Uzbekistan: Human Rights Advocates Urge Bush to Confront Karimov, 15 March, 2002
8. Human Rights Watch, 'Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan, p177
10. Human Rights Watch, 'Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan, p249
11. Ibid p62
12. Ibid p65
13. Ibid p71
14. Ibid p198
15. Ibid p265
16. Ibid p211
18. Ibid p244
20. Mother Jones
26. The Daily Telegraph 9 February, 2004
30. Karimov and his regime was criticised by the chronically stupid former international development secretary Clare Short. However this can hardly be considered a principled stand since Short did not vocally condemn the regime until after she had left office, (see this article). Indeed despite requests from HRW for her not to chair the ERDB's annual meeting in Tashkent, (see this piece), Short went ahead stating that "We welcome President Karimov's condemnation of the practise of torture" -condemnation that Karimov cannot possibly have meant.
31. British Embassy
32. The Guardian 19 October 2003
33. The Times 1 April 2004
35. Human Rights Watch, 'Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan, p273
36. The Uzbek authorities preferred explanation was that Avazov had been scalded in a fight involving several teapots. See Human Rights Watch, 'Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan p273
37. The Times 7 April 2004
40. Independent on Sunday, 4 April 2004