Uzbekistan Cracks Down On Human Rights Activists

President stresses need for state control, but critics see arrests as effort to eliminate opposition before election

THE Uzbek government's arrest of a political activist in neighboring Kazakhstan on the eve of a human rights conference in the Kazakh capital has raised concerns that Uzbek security forces may be stepping up activities outside their borders.

Vasiliya Inoyatova, who had previously been charged with writing poetry that insulted the dignity of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, was arrested 15 miles from the Uzbek border in southern Kazakhstan on May 12, says Zhemis Turmagambetova, deputy director of the Kazakhstan-American Human Rights Bureau. She is reportedly still in police custody.

The incident is the latest in a series of political arrests and detentions in Uzbekistan, which has the worst human rights record of the former Soviet republics. The arrest also raises concerns that the Central Asian nation's security forces may be expanding activities outside Uzbek territory.

About 50 Uzbek political activists have been arrested in cities throughout Uzbekistan since President Karimov met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on March 2, says Oleg Panfilov of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. Some have been released from police custody. ``Karimov went to Moscow and received Russia's support, both economically and politically. The next day the arrests began,'' Mr. Panfilov says.

Karimov has stressed the need for strong state control, saying it is vital to prevent instability from creeping into his ethnically mixed nation of 22 million people. Foreign observers, however, have said his actions are aimed at eliminating opposition before multiparty elections, promised some time this year. Two opposition parties, Birlik and Erk, have been outlawed or prevented from registering for the elections.

Road ambush

Ms. Inoyatova, a prominent member of Birlik, was detained along with four colleagues as they drove to the human rights conference in Alma-Ata. The conference was sponsored in part by the US Agency for International Development, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry, and the Kazakh government.

The activists were forced to drive to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, where they were questioned by officials for several hours. Inoyatova's colleagues were eventually released.

Two days earlier, another potential conference delegate was arrested in Tashkent as he visited relatives. Two other delegates have since been arrested. It was unclear if any of the activists had been formally charged.

No acknowledgment of arrests

Karimov said he knew nothing about the arrests when asked about them during an official visit to Tokyo last week. Both Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry and the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow declined to comment when contacted by phone.

Last year, Uzbek human rights activists in Moscow said they had been routinely beaten by Uzbek security authorities sent to the Russian capital to harass them. And in 1992, several activists were rounded up and prevented from attending a human rights conference in Bishkek, the capital of nearby Kyrgyzstan, says Samobar Shermatova, a human rights reporter for Moscow News.

``Karimov is a tyrant. He observes no international laws, but instead follows only his own rules and regulations,'' says Natalia Fokina, spokeswoman for the international human rights organization Helsinki Watch in Alma-Ata. ``How can you arrest someone just because they are going somewhere, especially when there are transparent borders and no passport control [between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan]?''

Washington has consistently pressed Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record. In September, Strobe Talbott, now United States deputy secretary of state, abruptly left Uzbekistan after failing to make progress in talks with Karimov over human rights issues.

Russia has deplored the incidents. ``It seems these measures were aimed at preventing the activists from attending the human rights conference,'' Foreign Ministry Spokesman Grigory Karasin said at a news conference here last week. ``Russia proceeds from the fact that activities of human rights organizations are a necessary condition for the functioning of any democratic society.''

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