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Meet Our New Saddam

Introducing Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan

by SADIK H. KASSIM

Introducing Islam Karimov, one of Washington’s most recent allies in the War on Terror. The neo-Stalinist autocrat presides over Uzbekistan, a vast mineral and oil rich country strategically located in central Asia. A country where dissidents are boiled alive (1); where having an Islamically sanctioned beard can get you arrested (2); where torture is widespread. In short, a country where human rights abuses are occurring on "a massive scale," (3) financed in part by the American taxpayer.

Slightly larger than the state of California and home to the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, Uzbekistan today is a prime theater in the "War on Terror". After the September 11 attacks, Uzbekistan granted American troops permission to use its Khanbad military base located just north of Afghanistan.

The establishment of Khanbad, along with other bases in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, enabled the American government to achieve three major strategic goals. In addition to providing a center from which the American military could pursue the Taliban in Afghanistan, the bases more importantly, improved "American access to Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas," and extended "US influence to a region hitherto dominated by Russia and of constant concern to China (4)." The bases in essence paved the way for America to gain a foothold in a globally strategic region thereby putting it in a better position to compete with Russia and China for the great oil treasures of the Caspian Sea.

In addition to being the world’s largest lake, the Caspian sea is believed to hold vast oil reserves comparable to those of the Middle East. Yet, unlike the Middle East, transport of the extracted black gold from the landlocked lake to the open sea is a major hurdle. Therefore, the primary issue guiding the politics of the region revolve around not ownership of oil, rather control of the proposed pipelines by which the oil is transported5. It is within this context that Uzbekistan has emerged as "the key strategic state in the area (5)."

Uzbekistan’s cooperation with Washington has not gone unrewarded. In March 2002, Messrs Bush and Karimov formally met for 45 minutes in the White House. The meeting produced a five point strategic partnership between the two countries. Among other things, in exchange for continued use of Khanbad, the agreement granted Uzbekistan $500 million in aid and credit guarantees (6), $25 million for military assistance, $18 million for "border security assistance", and $1 million in policing assistance (7). These concessions were made to one of America’s "foremost partners in the fight against terrorism (8)" despite the State Department’s own declaration that, "Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with a very poor human rights record (9)."

According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) 2003 World Report3, the Karimov led government violates, on a systematic level, basic rights "to freedom of religion, expression, association and assembly." HRW notes that Karimov has used the pretext of the "War on Terror", to pursue a campaign whose aim is to squelch opposition. Specifically, the government has arrested and tortured thousands of independent Muslims, including minors. HRW and other human rights organizations estimate that there are between 7,000 and 10,000 prisoners held on religious and political charges. Most recently, forensic evidence has been revealed suggesting that Karimov’s government boiled to death two Muslim prisoners after they refused to stop praying.

The only major critique of Karimov’s government by a western government official has come from Britain’s Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray (10). "Uzbekistan is not a functioning democracy, nor does it appear to be moving in the direction of democracy," said Murray at the opening of the Freedom House human rights center in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in October 2002. Murray continued by exclaiming that, "The major political parties are banned; parliament is not subject to democratic election; and checks and balances on the authority of the electorate are lacking." Murray concluded by noting that, "no government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, and who pursue their views by peaceful means."

Murray’s speech did not sit well with either the American or the Uzbek governments, the latter calling on Murray to apologize for his remarks. Murray did not relent and continued his critiques. In May 2003 he decried, "the intense repression here [in Uzbekistan] combined with the inequality of wealth and absence of reform." While in August 2003 he restated that there was, "no freedom of speech, mass media, movement and so forth." Furthermore, he called on the Uzbek interior and national security ministries to publicly criticize themselves for using torture.

Murray’s blunt manner "was causing alarm in London and Washington, where he was regarded as too undiplomaticsome influential figures in the diplomatic service felt he had gone too far10." For his troubles, Murray was subject to a spurious internal British Foreign Office investigation for alleged misconduct. The pressures got to Murray, who eventually returned to London in October of this year for "medical reasons".

According to James McGrory, a British development consultant based in Tashkent, "The common belief is that Mr. Murray is being sacrificed to the AmericansThey certainly loathed him…the US Embassy makes no effort to conceal its dislike of the way he repeatedly and unequivocally slams (the country’s) human rights record."

Clare Short, former International Development Secretary who resigned from the Blair cabinet over the war in Iraq, is a purported supporter of Murray’s critiques. Of Murray, Short said the following (11), "He is an individual who was taking a stand on human rights issues where there is terrible, terrible repressionif he has been smeared and belittled for standing up for fundamental human rights–this is not just a few honorable political dissidents but really horrible repression–that would be outrageous."

The case of Uzbekistan and Craig Murray prove that once again political expediency takes priority over human rights issues in a globally strategic region. The final word belongs to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the only major American periodical to significantly condemn American policy in Uzbekistan. In an editorial dated November 8, 2003, it was noted that, "If U.S. policy is to have any credibility in the Muslim world–indeed in the world at large–it must be based not on convenience, but on principle. It will be recalled that in the 1980s, the United States made a similar deal of convenience with another Central Asian tyrant. His name was Saddam Hussein."

Sadik Kassim is a graduate student. He may be reached at shkassim81@yahoo.com.

Notes:

1. Fielding, F. and Nick Meo. "Mystery Grows Over Recall of ‘ill’ Ambassador." Sunday Times 12 October 2003, 4.

2. Barry, E. "Fighting Terror/ UZBEKISTAN; Religious Fervor Sparks a Fearful Leader’s Crackdown." The Boston Globe 2 November 2001, third ed.: sec. A: 32.

3. Human Rights Watch World Report 2003. Uzbekistan. 2003.

4. "Not Just an Airbase: The US Must Tread Carefully in Central Asia." The Financial Times [London] 25 August 2003, first ed.: pg. 16.

5. Glenny, M. "To Hell and Baku: The Vast Scale and Bloody Price of the Rush for Oil in the Caspian has Been Little Noticed. Now a Powerful New Study Reveals All." The Observer 2 November 2003.: Observer Review Pages, 16.

6. "Dealing With the Devil." St. Louis Post-Dispatch [St. Louis] 8 November 2003, Editorial.

7. Amnesty International. A Catalogue of Failures: G8 Arms Exports and Human Rights Violations. 2003.

8. United States Government, "Uzbekistan Military Assistance" and "Uzbekistan Exchanges and Law Enforcement Assistance"–US Government, undated, 2002.

9. "UZBEKISTAN: Leader to Meet Bush." The New York Times [New York] 12 March 2002, final ed.: sec. A pg. 10.

10. Beeston R., and James Kilner. "Outspoken Envoy to Uzbekistan Comes Home." The Times 1 October 2003, pg. 18.

11. Bright, M. "Short Backs Envoy Who Criticized US: Repression in Uzbekistan is ‘Terrible’ ". The Observer 19 October 2003, pg. 12.