Bush's Uzbekistan test

Uzbekistan, which sits on Afghanistan's border and faces its own terrorist movement, has played host to US troops. The Uzbek strongman, Islam Karimov, has rightly earned points for this.

But President Karimov, meeting with President Bush this week in Washington, also has a dark side. His government has shown little respect for human rights and severely represses political opposition.

Indeed, while Karimov uses the recent terrorist threat to justify suppression of opponents, he has been repressing his opposition for years.

In 1992, Karimov banned all peaceful democratic parties. Over the years, he has tried political opponents on trumped-up charges of "antistate activities." He has near-total control of the media. Political opponents have disappeared. Peaceful Uzbek opposition leaders who were in neighboring countries have been abducted. Political prisoners have died from torture.

At the same time, Karimov has faced a real threat from extremist guerrilla and terrorist movements, most notably the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU espouses a revolutionary ideology supported with Saudi money, including heavy cash infusions from Uzbeks who have settled in Saudi Arabia and, according to author Ahmed Rashid, are close to former Saudi security chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

In addition, Uzbekistan has seen the rapidly growing appeal of Hizb-ut-tahrir, a secretive political movement that preaches the doctrine of violent jihad against rulers, like Karimov, whom they call nonbelievers who suppress Islam.

This underground party preaches the cleansing of Central Asia of all other religious groups, including Shiite Muslims. Some observers from the region argue that it is likely linked to the drug trade, that it cooperates with the IMU, and that some of its adherents are likely eventually to practice what they preach: the violent overthrow of leaders they see as guilty of infidelity to Islam.

The IMU may even pose a threat to US national security. A document appearing on Hizb-ut-tahrir's website in October - declared that "a state of war exists between [the US] and all the Muslims."

Groups that engage in hate speech and advocate violence pose a complex problem even for democracies. Many democracies - including Germany - have banned groups and publications that preach hatred and call for violence.

In the context of widespread terrorism in Uzbekistan, such bans may be justified; but the banning of periodicals and movements that support human rights and democracy is not. Nor is it acceptable to subject hundreds of youths drawn to extremist movements to sentences exceeding 15 years just for having banned literature.

The US's new relationship with Uzbekistan allows Washington an opportunity to address the regime's dismal human-rights record, and for Bush to press Karimov to open up his country to peaceful critics.

Karimov is susceptible to pressure, because he needs US engagement more than the US needs Uzbekistan's cooperation in the war on terror. US military operations in Afghanistan have eroded the threat of the IMU, which trained and sought shelter under the Taliban. Any operations mounted by IMU remnants would be crushed. Thus, Karimov cannot argue that the terrorist threat precludes reforms.

Indeed, US resolve against extremists is already encouraging some Muslim governments - most notably, Bahrain - to move toward devolving power to elected parliaments. In the past, Turkey has successfully controlled radical Islamist and terrorist movements while pursuing greater political openness, partly as a result of pressure from Europe and the US.

The Uzbek Human Rights Organization has urged the US to press Karimov to legalize the democratic opposition and allow the safe return of exiles. Bush should press Karimov to stop repression of legitimate human-rights and political activists, legalize civic groups, allow an independent review of the estimated 8,000 political prisoners, and restore the rights of political parties such as Erk and Birlik.

Karimov's US visit gives Bush an opportunity to show that the US can balance the war on terrorism with promotion of basic human rights and democratic reforms in a repressive regime.

The Uzbek government can enhance its security by ceasing repressive actions against human-rights defenders, establishing the rule of law, and allowing a free media and an engaged civil society.

Unchecked, Karimov's policies will drive discontent further underground. There, it will likely be more susceptible to the manipulations of extremists, who may reemerge to menace Uzbekistan, its neighbors, and - through links to global terrorist networks - the US.

• Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House.

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