The dangers of being Uzbekistan's best friend

The bloody suppression of an uprising in Uzbekistan dramatizes how Islam Karimov's regime is now more of a liability than an asset to Washington's long-term strategic interests. If we want to avoid a "clash of civilizations" with a billion Muslims, the United States can no longer afford to be this anti-Islamic dictator's closest ally.

In 2001, Uzbekistan was an essential staging ground for the war that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But today it matters more as an example of US hypocrisy about human rights. It seems that a Soviet-style police state can brutalize its own people with impunity as long as it has good relations with the Pentagon.

Despite Mr. Karimov's efforts to block journalists from the sites of the massacres in Uzbekistan's Andijon region, it is now clear that hundreds of civilians were killed - many of them peaceful demonstrators. Though the insurgents also used deadly force, killing policemen and taking hostages, some of those hostages were slain by Karimov's own troops who sprayed crowds with automatic weapons fire.

The Andijon atrocities follow years of repression that have increasingly alienated the Karimov regime from its own people. The regime makes no serious effort to distinguish between Islamic extremists and moderates, imprisoning thousands on trumped-up charges of "terrorist" activity. Karimov's secret police are champion users of torture in investigative proceedings - reportedly including the torture of foreign captives delivered by the CIA.

Last month the Forum 18 News Service published its latest survey of religious freedom in Uzbekistan. It is clear from the findings of its Central Asia correspondent Igor Rotar that the State Department's quiet diplomacy has failed. Unregistered religious activity is still illegal, with believers often punished simply for holding prayer meetings in private homes, Mr. Rotar reported. It is almost impossible for minorities to register new congregations, with only one (a Jewish community) receiving official registration during all of 2004. Religious literature is censored: Imported books such as Bibles have been confiscated and destroyed. Muslims cannot travel as pilgrims to Mecca without specific permission from the state. All missionary activities are banned.

Last autumn saw a new surge of prosecutions of Protestants, Rotar found. The regime continues to "see any informal group of Muslims as a potential terrorist organization and sentence its members to lengthy prison terms. It is clear that the majority of Muslims arrested after the terrorist attacks in March and April 2004 were 'guilty' only of meeting to read the Koran and talk about God," he reported.

The US advisory commission on international religious freedom recently recommended that Washington add Uzbekistan to its official list of "countries of particular concern" - the world's most brazen persecutors of religion. The commission also urged that aid to the Uzbek government "be made contingent upon establishing and implementing a specific timetable for the government to take concrete steps" in observing human rights standards.

That would be a dramatic change from what happened last summer. As required by US human rights law, the State Department cut aid to Uzbekistan by $18 million. Within weeks, the Pentagon gave Karimov a new infusion of $21 million.

Unlike Ukraine, Uzbekistan offers no plausible scenario in the near future for genuine freedom. Karimov's successor might be a member of the current elite, or a leader of a powerful regional clan, or a Taliban-style Islamic extremist; the longer Karimov continues to crush all opposition via brute force, the more likely it will be the latter.

Washington need not take radical steps to bring down this hated despot, but it should be putting him at arm's length. Both he and other dictators - and their victims - need to see that the US does not remain best friends with those who torture and murder their own people.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch, an independent research center that investigates state-enforced religious conformity. He spent seven years in Russia monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet Republics.

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