Human rights inch ahead in Uzbekistan

Farmer Gulomiddin Mamadaliev wept as he scythed the wheat this year.

The seeds had been planted by his son, Alimuhamad, who later was detained as a suspected Islamic militant and, on the day of his arrest, beaten to death.

But for the grieving father, this year's harvest of sorrow also holds a tiny grain of consolation: Two weeks ago, the Uzbek secret police who killed his son were sent to jail.

It is a rare turn of justice in this country, where President Islam Karimov rules with an iron hand, and the rights of the accused, and other human rights hold little currency. The Mamadaliev case and another, in which four policemen were each sentenced to 20-year terms in January for killing one suspect and maiming another, are recent moves in Uzbekistan that point toward a liberalization for the first time in Karimov's 12-year rule.

Most of the changes have taken place since Sept. 11. Looking for help in waging its "war on terror," the US began courting Uzbekistan and other repressive Central Asian regimes whose proximity to Afghanistan made them key allies.

But critics charge that the recent progress is only window-dressing by Uzbekistan to please its new ally – and that the US is compromising demands for more far-reaching improvements in human rights at the expense of short-term military needs.

"The Uzbek government is serious in recognizing the need to satisfy the US on this ... but it is not sincere," says John Schoeberlein, head of the Program on Central Asia and the Caucasus at Harvard University. "Basically, it's just PR."

Uzbekistan abolished censorship in mid-May, and on Wednesday Karimov ordered the creation of an independent agency with the task of ensuring media freedom. The first official registration of a human rights group took place in March, under strong US pressure – and just days before Karimov visited Washington. For the first time, some 860 prisoners held on political and religious charges were included last fall in an annual amnesty.

Closer ties

Washington and Tashkent signed a strategic partnership deal in March that reportedly commits Uzbekistan to clean up its rights record – and shifts Uzbekistan away from Russia and toward the West. Some 1,800 US Special Forces troops now use the former Soviet base at Khanabad. Meanwhile, US aid to Uzbekistan has tripled to $166 million this year.

Central Asia, including the lush Fergana Valley – source of much of this region's Islamic militancy in the past decade – is where ancient empires overlapped or collided, and where the Silk Route brought new ideas from China and Europe. For decades part of the Soviet empire, the Central Asian states have been led since the USSR's collapse by authoritarian communist-era stalwarts like Karimov. Uzbek prisons are now filled with 6,500 religious and political inmates, often held on flimsy evidence, whom the state calls "terrorists."

US officials say that closer ties are giving the US greater influence over these regimes, and thus a way to press for change. "Human rights and democracy are as essential today, if not more, than they were before the [Sept. 11] terrorist attacks," Lorne Craner, asst. secretary of state in charge of democracy and human rights, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Local rights activists praise the US Embassy here for providing support in efforts to create a civil society, promoting human rights groups, and even intervening in harassment cases. But they know there is a broader US military agenda, too, that requires close ties with Karimov.

The Uzbeks have understood that while relations with the US have improved substantially since Sept. 11, if they want to maintain them, they must move forward, says a Western diplomat. Deputy Foreign Minister Sadiq Safaev says the court cases are a first step: "It's a signal to all policemen that there is no more cover for you from the state, and you will be punished ... if you violate human rights."

Uzbekistan's aim – with American help, says Ismaf Khushev, editor of a weekly government newspaper, is to join the world community. "Karimov is very clever and can see the way of the future," he says. "Leaders who are not democratic are seen as stupid. There is no other way now. Karimov knows it."

Uzbeks cautiously welcome the moves toward openness. But results so far are difficult to judge. In mid-May, for example, the head of the State Secrets Committee – Uzbekistan's official censor – stopped showing up for work, and so stopped reading newspapers before they were printed. Slowly, more critical stories began to appear. Unemployment levels were explored; so were the hard lives of pensioners. Even an opposition poet was back in print – though his editor received complaints from the president's office, according to the United Kingdom-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

But editors have also been warned – sometimes through threatening phone calls – that they will be held accountable. Cases brought by the authorities against journalists have multiplied. The author of the unemployment story says that he was beaten up by thugs and warned by police that next time he would know what to keep silent about.

"These incidents tell me that there is a new type of control going on," says Galima Bukharbaeva, director of the IWPR office in Tashkent.

One false start toward more press freedom occurred after a secret meeting a 1996 in which Karimov told a group of journalists, according to two who were present, that he wanted a more critical press. But after four robustly critical issues of Tashkent's Huriyet newspaper appeared, the editor was told that government ministers had complained, and that he would be replaced.

The Uzbek government tried several times to create democracy, says Huriyet's founder, Karim Bahriyev. The problem, he says, is that there is no concept of democracy in a land ruled by kings and khans for 2,500 years. Changes are also slow on human rights. Arrests are still being made, and torture continues. Rights activists in the provinces say intimidation includes gathering new information for files on them, opposition sympathizers, and local journalists.

Some observers are feeling hopeful, says Matilda Bogner, head of the Uzbekistan office for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But why isn't there an order from the top that beating and torture are going to stop?" she asks, adding: "Why are there only two [police brutality] cases in more than seven months, when there is a fountain of information [about similar incidents] if they want it?"

Yusuf Abdukarimov, the Fergana City prosecutor who brought the landmark case against the three officers in the killing of wheat farmer Alimuhamad Mamadaliev, says he has two more cases pending of abuse by police. "People are amazed, because they are not used to hearing such things," he says. "A big process is going on to improve." Earlier this year – in a program unique here – Mr. Abdukarimov began issuing 28 different leaflets, to 905 local councils, offering tips to citizens on everything from facing down bureaucracy, to legally pursuing unpaid salaries and pensions. "Now people are starting to realize and demand their rights," he says.

A father's crusade

Alimuhamad's father has already learned lessons about pursuing rights and justice. "I am struggling all the time to punish these people, because my son did nothing [wrong], and worked all the time," says Gulomiddin Mamadaliev, his broad hands deeply tanned from years in the fields. "He was religious, and prayed five times a day when he could."

One of the few farmers in the area who met the official cotton and wheat quota, Alimuhamad, a father of two, was praised last fall by the regional leader, or hakim, for being a good farmer.

After success in the courts, the father two weeks ago appealed – to go after bigger bosses, and the informants who put his son's name on a list of people suspected of being Islamic militants.

"They provoked this whole case," the farmer says.

Activist says human rights progress is 'good but little'

From the clutter of his dim apartment, Mikhail Ardzinov, Uzbekistan's most prominent human rights activist, retrieves what he laughingly calls "one of my most popular tracts."

The booklet is 10 pages long – one for each year of Uzbekistan's independence when Mr. Ardzinov put it together two years ago – and is titled: "Human Rights and Democracy in Uzbekistan." Every page is blank, except the note at the end, which says: "To be continued...." Now there should be an update, he says: In March, his Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (IHROU) became the first rights group ever to be officially registered in this Central Asian nation.

Receiving official permission to operate is one of several positive steps here that Ardzinov says are "good, but very little. We want very big."

Ardzinov, who was first questioned by the KGB in 1973, when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, says: "We are an authoritarian regime, and have a cult of personality with [President Islam] Karimov, who has a Napoleon complex." He jokes about a questionable referendum in January – which extended Karimov's rule one more time, to 2007 and also yielded the creation of a bicameral parliament.

"It took [Karimov] 10 years to understand that a two-chamber parliament is better than one," says Ardzinov. "In 10 more years, maybe he will say it is good for MPs to debate in parliament, and that TV can show it – but not now!"

Ardzinov was sitting in this apartment in 1981, when some paint fell from the ceiling and a KGB microphone slipped through. "I wanted to pull it down, but somebody pulled it up," Ardzinov recalls. "That really frightened me."

His problems were not over after Uzbek independence. In 1992, the KGB blasted his front door open – the shrapnel still mars the entryway and elevator wall. Ardzinov lost 28 pounds during a 10-day hunger strike while in custody.

In 1999, Ardzinov was beaten up by thugs who took his files and computers and bloodied his face. US and European donors replaced the hardware. The files were returned when his organization's registration was approved, after a five-year effort that he says was given a critical boost by US pressure. He received the final papers just days before Karimov traveled in March to visit George Bush at the White House, to receive praise as a key member of Washington's antiterror coalition. "Without the US and others, we would have been registered earlier," Ardzinov says drily, "but only for our graves."

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