Rights groups fear price of US-Uzbek alliance

The police returned Ravshan Haidov's body to his family on Oct. 18, explaining they'd arrested him the night before as a rogue Muslim, but he'd had "a heart attack." Those who viewed the body of the 32-year-old father of two say the broken bones and bruises suggested something worse. Haidov's younger brother, police added, was still in custody, in a hospital.

For Uzbekistan, this is both a tired old story - and an absolutely new one. Old, because the Haidovs are just the latest victims of a long-running government crusade against Muslims whom it fears will incite an Islamic insurgency.

And new, because three weeks ago the United States and Uzbekistan announced "a qualitatively new relationship" - one marked by a secretive US military base on Uzbek territory, and by an American promise to defend Uzbekistan.

Already, Uzbekistan is reaping the benefits as the US builds new international bridges for an antiterrorism coalition. Until now, the government of this former communist republic of 25 million - mostly Muslims - has come under US criticism for punishing those who practice Islam outside of government controls. But human rights groups fear US pressure will subside under the new alliance.

To be sure, Uzbekistan faces a terrorist threat of its own. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a radical fundamentalist group, has assassinated police officers and civil servants of President Islam Karimov's secular government. In 1999, IMU car bombs ripped through downtown Tashkent, killing 16 people and wounding many dozens.

Today, the IMU enjoys a haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from which it launches guerrilla raids into Uzbekistan. In fact, IMU was the only terrorist organization other than Al Qaeda that President George W. Bush singled out in his national address on Sept. 20.

Defining 'terrorism'

But Washington and Tashkent part ways on attitudes toward other "independent" Muslims. International and local rights activists say more than 7,000 Muslims are in jail for crimes ranging from worshipping at non-state-sanctioned mosques to posessing a banned leaflet.

Some Muslim groups advocate political change in Uzbekistan through peaceful means. The most prominent example is a 50-year-old Jordan-based Islamic organization, Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The group advocates creating a Caliphate, or Islamic theocracy, across much of Central Asia. While the group is no friend of democracy or Western freedoms, and some of its literature is anti-Semitic and anti-American, it has never been implicated in advocating violence.

The Uzbek government says Hizb-ut-Tahrir, by arguing for sweeping political change, is trying to "subvert" the Constitution, and so equates the group with terrorists. People accused of any passing association with the group - including acquaintance with a mosque or an imam, or having a relative associated with the group, or possessing a single Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflet - are routinely sentenced to from 12 to 20 years in prison.

"Terrorists need an ideology. [Hizb-ut-Tahrir] prepares recruits for groups like Hamas or Al Qaeda by providing them with an ideology," says Shazim Minovarov, deputy chairman of Uzbekistan's Religious Affairs Committee.

Acacia Shields, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has documented hundreds of such cases, has reservations about America's new security relationship with Tashkent.

"Are we talking about protecting [Uzbekistan] from the Taliban or the IMU? If so, fine. But my fear is that the Uzbek government will turn to the United States and say: Help us in countering our 'internal threat.' And that means: Help us continue this horrific campaign against peaceful, independent Muslims," Shields says.

Will US pressure ease?

Until now, one of the few brakes on Muslim persecution has been the US State Department. American pressure is credited with freeing some prisoners, including prominent human rights activists, and with persuading Tashkent in 2000 to let the International Committee of the Red Cross enter Uzbek jails.

A State Department spokesman in Washington, Mark Toner, insisted that Washington's "commitment to human rights in Uzbekistan is not going to change." But rights activists aren't so sure.

"Terrorists must be fought. But it's a different matter that Karimov can and will use this situation to his own ends, to completely wipe out the religious groups and human rights activists - the only independent voices left," says Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan.

But Tashkent remains unmoved by such talk. "I know ... the views of Western governments. You think because we go after these groups it creates extremism," says Mr. Minovarov. "I disagree. Democracy also needs discipline.... If our respected American friends would not so strongly defend these people, we could have solved a lot of problems by now."

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