Many living in Muslim countries think that what the United States calls a “war on terror” is a war against their religion. Many in the West must think that people who hold such views are extremely naÃ¯ve and deprived of relevant information. To the contrary, at least sometimes even if not always, the war against terrorism does take the form of a war against Islam. The reason why many in the West find this view incomprehensible and weird is because they are not aware of all the facts. How often in the North American news media does one hear about human rights in Uzbekistan? Sometimes perhaps, but not often.
Before the U.N. General Assembly, George Bush remarked that Saddam Hussein’s monuments have been removed and not only his statues. The true monuments of his rule and his character–the torture chambers and the rape rooms and the prison cells for innocent children–are closed. And as we discover the killing fields and mass graves of Iraq, the true scale of Saddam’s cruelty is being revealed. Success of a free Iraq will be watched and noted throughout the region. Millions will see that freedom, equality and material progress are possible at the heart of the Middle East. Leaders in the region will face the clearest evidence that free institutions and open societies are the only path to long-term national success and dignity. And a transformed Middle East would benefit the entire world by undermining the ideologies that export violence to other lands. Iraq, as a dictatorship, had great power to destabilize the Middle East. Iraq, as a democracy, will have great power to inspire the Middle East. (1)
Much of what Bush said about Iraq under Saddam Hussein could be said about Uzbekistan today under Islam Karimov, but with respect to Central Asia rather than to the Middle East. Bush was trying to justify his decision to invade Iraq and install a new government. And yet, despite a few unmaterialized threats to link U.S. aid to the improvement in its human rights conditions, the U.S. attitude toward Uzbekistan has been extremely friendly. In fact, the United States has even helped finance the tortures and murders in Uzbekistan, knowing full well what they were paying for.
After the sickening atrocities of 11 September 2001, the United States strengthened ties with Central Asian nations, not only for the sake of maneuvering into a good position to invade nearby Afghanistan, but also to improve American access to central Asian oil and natural gas (2). This eventually led to a strategic alliance with Uszbekistan. Unfortunately, the Uzbek government uses this alliance as a carte blanche to wage its own war of religious persecution in the name of fighting terrorism, as the U.S. government well knows. America refrains from any serious admonishment, much less regime change, despite the Uzbek government’s mass arrests and chambers for torture and killing. In other words, despite the fact that Uzbekistan largely fits Bush’s description of Iraq under Saddam Hussein as quoted above (3). The American public do not complain because they generally do not know about Uzbekistan, except perhaps that the U.S. has a military base there which it used for its operations in Afghanistan. The major American news media, at least to the date of this writing, do not bother to report about human rights in Uzbekistan to anything beyond a very small degree.
Joseph Stalin divided Central Asia into a number of socialist republics, the “stans,” in order to cripple Muslim resistance to Soviet rule. In the early 1990s, the government of Uzbekistan was newly independent of the collapsed Soviet system. The former First Secretary of the Communist Party, Islam Karimov, was elected President in December of 1991, but foreign observers did not consider the election to be free or fair. Officially, Uzbekistan allows free speech, separation of powers, and representative government. But the legislature actually holds very little power and the judiciary fails to show independence from the will of the executive, virtually all power residing in the hands of President Karimov. There are repeated referendums, denounced by international observers as fraudulent, which always extend Karimov’s presidency. Currently, he stands to be President to the end of 2007. Provincial governors are selected and replaced by Karimov. The news media are either controlled by the government or avoid covering politically sensitive issues. The U.S. Department of State puts it bluntly: “Uzbekistan is not a democracy” (4).
In the absence of traditional Soviet controls on the practice of Islam, the government built hundreds of mosques in the early 1990s. According to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2002, this proliferation of Islam, or at least of its more open practice, was accompanied by the emergence of many highly reactionary Muslim groups. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose aim is to set up an Islamic state in the Fergana valley, a region multiply divided by Stalin’s stan-making, appeared in the city of Namangan. In 1990, the IMU began to make public demands of President Karimov, e.g. that Uzbekistan should be declared an Islamic state instituting sharia law. At the IMU’s invitation, Karimov arrived in Namangan in 1991 to discuss the matter. The journalist Ahmed Rashid describes the discussion as being little more than a “shouting match,” with Karimov returning to Tashkent bitter and the IMU deciding to wage a jihad against him. Prior to the de-Talibanization of Afghanistan, there were a number of attacks by the IMU in Central Asia, mainly in the Fergana valley (5).
Continuing with the International Religious Freedom Report, Hizb ut-Tahrir, an anti-Semitic group, also with theocratic goals, emerged early in the 1990s as well. Vigilante groups began to appear in the Fergana region enforcing some of the harsher Muslim customs, such as full cover for women. To counteract these theocratic trends, the Uzbek government began to harshly punish political Islamists towards the end of 1991. The government’s stated viewpoint is that this is not an infringement of religious freedom but simply an attempt to protect the government from violent attacks and attempted overthrow.
Violence directed against the Uzbek government is a reality, although much of it may be in response to Karimov’s autocratic bullying of pious Muslims. In December of 1997, four members of the militia were mysteriously murdered in Namangan. Islamists were blamed (6). More spectacularly, on the 16th of February 1999, a series of nearly simultaneous bomb blasts in downtown Tashkent killed sixteen people and wounded over 100. President Karimov, who survived unscathed, appeared to have been the intended target (7). The IMU was blamed. Juma Namangani, the head of the IMU and likely to have been an associate of Osama bin Laden, had been the most wanted man in Uzbekistan until he died in Kabul from wounds sustained while fighting anti-Taliban forces in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan in November of 2001 (8).
After both the 1997 murders in Namangan and the 1999 bombings in Tashkent, according to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2001, police arrested at least hundreds of people labelled “Wahabbist” and detained some as long as two months, only for the majority of those detained to be released. Real Wahabbists are religious extremists, but the term is used loosely by the Uzbek government to refer to any devout Muslim.
According to the 2002 edition of the aforementioned report, the government’s campaign against Muslim extremists mainly targets three groups: Alleged Wahabbists, those suspected of being involved in the 1999 Tashkent bombings or of being involved in the IMU, and suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. For the period from January 1999 to August 2001, the Moscow human rights organization Memorial estimates that over 2,600 were convicted on political and religious grounds. The lack of a free press and the paucity of public trials in Uzbekistan make calculation difficult, but the actual figure of those arrested for religious or political reasons is probably between 6,500 and 7,000. Roughly 5,000 are suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan estimates that only 200 of those arrested were not accused of Islamic extremism.
Not a Particular Concern
In 1998, the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act established the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Office of International Religious Freedom publishes a yearly report, the International Religious Freedom Report, already cited above. The 1998 Act also established the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom. The Commission produces a report of its own and recommends to the President and the Secretary of State the designation of certain countries as “Countries of Particular Concern.” What is alarming is that, even though the International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 and 2002 document many serious abuses of religious freedoms, often involving serious human rights violations, Uzbekistan has never been listed as a Country of Particular Concern. It is worthwhile to review examples of such abuses documented in the International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 and 2002. Except where otherwise noted, all information appearing in the rest of this section can be found in those two reports, the point being that the information to follow is the very information the U.S. government uses in deciding whether or not a country is of Particular Concern.
The Uzbek government is secular, there being no state religion. However, the government tries to control religious affairs in the country through its Spiritual Directorate for Muslims (a.k.a. the Muftiate) which it finances. The Muftiate, in turn, controls the country’s Muslim hierarchy as well as the content and quantity of Islamic sermons and publications. The government funds an Islamic university and bankrolls citizens for participating in the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca, but it acts to outlaw and dissolve Muslim groups which it claims to be extremist and a threat to its secular system. The result is that many Muslims are jailed and intimidated simply for being pious.
Any religious group must register with the government. The government can effectively ban any religious group by denying its registration petition. The government makes this task easy for itself by requiring any such group to contain at least 100 citizen members, a requirement which it can waive at its discretion. This selective enforcement of a rule is designed to make it hard for Muslims who worship outside the state-organized mosques to register. Another requirement designed to make it hard for suspect Muslim groups is the demand for a legal address. This can be a problem for Christian groups too. It is claimed that authorities sometimes deny that an address is legal simply because they are not happy with ethnic Uzbeks belonging to a Christian church. It is daunting for a religious group to invest in property without knowing if its address will be recognized as legal.
Despite some hostility toward Christian groups of the kind just noted, Russians, Jews, and foreigners usually enjoy more religious freedom than the predominantly Muslim ethnic Uzbeks.
Since those responsible for the 1999 bombings probably did have ties to politicized Islamic organizations, the Government considers all “Wahhabists” to be linked to terrorism even when they are not. The term “Wahhabist,” as applied by the Government to some Sunni Muslim groups, can be used to mean Islamist terrorist but it can also be used simply to mean any former student of a disliked imam or foreign madrass (school of Muslim religious instruction). Some Muslims belonging to prohibited groups deny being extremists and claim that they are simply being persecuted for their religious beliefs, and it is true that the government is suspicious of anyone who seems especially devout, such as bearded men and covered women. Many report that they do not feel comfortable praying five times a day according to Muslim tradition, and most men who do pray are cautiously clean shaven.
Groups labelled “Wahabbist” are not simply denied registration, making them illegal, but are also branded as “prohibited,” a more extreme classification meriting stiffer forms of punishment. The difference is that a prohibited group is not merely unregistered but is forbidden by law. In practice, however, courts often ignore this distinction and prosecute members of illegal groups as though they were prohibited. In 1998, the government permanently closed several hundred unauthorized mosques. No religious group may form a political party or social movement, and it is illegal to teach any religious principles privately. Those who meet privately to study Islam are in danger of being arrested. For example, in August 2001, a court convicted seven men for praying in a private home, incarcerating six of them; the court was more lenient on the octogenarian host, letting him go after he paid a fine. Police made prosecution easier by planting drugs and Hizb ut-Tahrir flyers on the accused.
The Muftiate issues lists of Islamic literature permitted by the government, bookstores selling Islamic literature not found on the list being at risk. People have even been imprisoned for possessing religious texts written in Arabic.
Belonging to an illegal or prohibited religious group is enough to risk arrest. It is common for law enforcement officers to torture those held in pre-trial detention for the sake of extracting confessions. It is likely that such mistreatment has even resulted in the deaths of several people. The police threaten relatives of those who have died in custody not to talk about the deaths of their family members, and it is not easy to calculate the numbers of those who have died suspiciously. Convicted prisoners are also often brutally mistreated.
In the period covered by these reports, the Uzbek government often held unannounced trials of large numbers of people alleged to be dangerous Islamists. International observers were rarely allowed to attend these trials. One striking feature of them is that defendants were often tried in groups even though, according to human rights activists, the defendants were often not actually connected to each other. Prosecutions were made on the basis of confessions which, according to many of those convicted, were extracted under torture. Judges ignored these claims and handed out prison terms which were typically anywhere from 15 to 20 years.
Descriptions of specific cases follow.
Haffezullah Nosirov was the “Amir” (chief) of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan until his arrest and trial in 2000. In December of that year, his brother, Habeebullah Nosirov, also a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, died in a prison in Jaslik. The family report that he died from severe beatings. Numon Saidaminov was alleged to be Haffezullah Nosirov’s successor as Amir of the Uzbek Hizb ut-Tahrir. In October of 2000, Saidaminov’s dead body was returned to his family after his detention by the National Security Service. It is alleged that a doctor who examined the body concluded that the death was due to a severe beating that had occurred two days earlier. There were open wounds and bruises on the fingernails, anus, and the soles of the feet, suggesting torture, including sexual torture. Heart attack was the official explanation for his death. It should be noted that Hizb ut-Tahrir, in contrast to the IMU, denies using violence as a means for achieving its ends.
The 56-year-old Emin Usman, a popular novelist in Uzbekistan, was arrested by the police on the 11th of February 2001 and held for his pre-trial detention in the basement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a location known for torture. Usman was accused of disseminating documents threatening social security and of encroaching on the constitutional order. The substance of the charge appears to have been that Usman, who was also famous for his translations, was allegedly translating Hizb ut-Tahrir publications. Some Uigur sources, Uigur being Usman’s ethnic group, deny that he was connected to this organization.
On the 28th of February, Usman’s family was notified of his death and told that he was a suicide. Strangely enough, the official death certificate listed the cause of death as a brain tumor. On the 1st of March, the police returned Usman’s body to his family. Officers surrounded the area in which the family lived to prevent people from examining the body, but those who did see it report that there was a large bleeding wound in the back of Usman’s head and that his body was covered with “numerous blue shadows and bruises” (9).
Muslim leaders are often arrested, detained, and tortured for supposed insubordination. Abdulvakhid Yuldashev, a former imam, was arrested in June 2000 and convicted in April of 2001 and given a 19-year prison sentence for allegedly organizing an Islamic militant group.
During his pre-trial detention in the basement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, lasting from June to April, Yuldashev was, according to his own testimony in court, beaten by the police and his genitals were burned in an attempt to get him to confess. During the pre-trial detention, Yuldashev was not granted access to legal counsel until August at which time he declined to exercise this right. The lawyer later wrote to the Prosecutor General that the bodily evidence for Yuldashev’s being tortured, such as wounds to his feet, and his demeanor strongly suggested that he refused to see a lawyer for fear of further torture. The judge for the trial did not investigate the charges of torture.
Shovruk Ruzimuradov was a human rights activist and a devout Muslim who criticized the government. On the 15th of June 2001, 31 police officers armed with automatic weapons searched his home and reported finding narcotics, 28 bullets, and Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets. Family members insist that these were planted by the police. Ruzimuradov was arrested on that date, his dead body being returned from police detention to his family less than a month later, 7 July 2001. According to an official investigation, Ruzimuradov had committed suicide, but four officials were dismissed for mishandling his detention and others were subjected to disciplinary action. Many believed that he had been beaten and tortured to death, thus making his funeral a potentially political event. Police blocked the road and made arrests to make sure that human rights activists could not attend the funeral.
Often when those who are wanted by the authorities cannot be apprehended, their close relatives are arrested instead. This is done on the assumption that it will hasten the search for the wanted fugitive, e.g. by beating the detainee to extract information about the relative’s whereabouts. In some cases, the government will even arrest the relatives of those who are already in custody on the assumption that an outraged relative is probably a security threat.
Ismail Khasanov was convicted for supposed links to political Islam in 1999. While he was in prison, the IMU made an incursion near Yangiabad. Khasanov, being a mere mortal of flesh and blood, could not have participated in the incursion, since he was behind bars. But he was accused of participating anyway and retried. In a further development, police planted Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets on Khasanov’s seventy-year-old father and arrested him. Police asked the aged man to confess. As an incentive, they allowed him to watch his son being beaten, upon which he decided to confess and received the punishment of three years in prison. Ismail’s brother, Bakhodir, was arrested in July of 2000. The only reason for the arrest, at least as reported in the International Report on Religious Freedom, is that Bakhodir was a close relative. People who knew Bakhodir claim that he was not very religious. The police do not even acknowledge that Bakhodir Khasanov is being held. He has effectively disappeared.
An increasing number of female relatives have been arrested. On the 17th of March 2001, Rahima Ahmadalieva was arrested and probably held in the aforementioned basement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. She is married to Ruhiddin Fahruddinov, a fugitive former imam accused of Wahhabism. Their daughter was arrested later that same month and forced to make a statement incriminating her mother. The daughter describes humiliating treatment directed against both her and her mother including verbal abuse and threats of rape.
Human rights activists themselves are often targeted due to their criticism of the government’s indiscriminate attacks on anyone suspected of Muslim extremism. The activist Ismail Adylov, who is apparently not even religious, was arrested in July 1999 for allegedly possessing Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets which the police may have planted. In September, he received a six-year prison sentence. In April of 2001, police arrested the activist Mahbuba Kasimova and warned her to stop making contacts with the relatives of those who have been imprisoned and to stop attending trials of suspected Islamists. On the 18th of September 2001, a prosecutor in the city of Andijon began an investigation into the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). HRSU aroused suspicion only because it had helped a group of women who were demanding the release of their male relatives. The investigation was eventually called off.
Apart from some details concerning Emin Usman, all of the above information in this section is from the International Religious Freedom Report for 2001 and for 2002. It is part of the information the U.S. government uses in deciding whether to list a country as being of Particular Concern for religious intolerance. The U.S. has chosen not to apply this designation to Uzbekistan, presumably because of the desire to suppress anything which even remotely resembles political Islam, even when it isn’t, and because of Uzbekistan’s abundant natural resources.
Relations to the United States
U.S.-Uzbek relations have recently been described as “flourishing,” especially since March of 2002 when the two presidents signed the Declaration of Strategic Partnership upgrading Uzbekistan’s status in relation to the U.S. (4). On the 14th of that month, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that the talks were unusually friendly with Bush himself setting the amicable tone. I quote: “Although the US press is covering the Uzbek president’s stay rather scantily, US state officials are not stinting on their words of approval for Uzbekistan. At any rate, throughout Mr. Karimov’s stay in the United States not one accusation of flouting human rights has been made against Uzbekistan – before 11 September this was a common occurrence” (10). After this meeting, the state-controlled news media of Uzbekistan proclaimed that the United States was on the side of the Uzbek government in its campaign against terrorism (11). In August of 2002, Karimov remarked to his legislature that “We should state with great pleasure that the majority of the world community recognizes the Uzbek state’s and people’s decisive participation in the fight declared against international terrorism” (quoted in (12)).
In October of 2003, The Guardian reported that “Last year, Washington gave the [Uzbek] government $500m (pounds 298m) in aid, $79m of which was specifically for the same ‘law enforcement and security services’ [which the U.S. State Department] accused of ‘routine torture’” (13). It is useful to bear these points in mind so that one may better understand why there are people who see the American war on terror as a war against Islam. The perception may sometimes be unfair, but in some contexts the U.S.-backed war on terrorism can take the form, not only of letting another country do its dirty work in the form of torture and murder, but even of financing that work.
The United States has encouraged the Uzbek government to behave more conscientiously with regard to human rights by legislators’ threatening to link aid to improvement in the human rights condition. Unfortunately, the relevant bills have not made it into law. As noted above, Uzbekistan is not officially a Country of Particular Concern. Very clearly, there has been no public American discussion of regime change, even though, according to The New York Times, Bush has recently begun to emphasize Saddam Hussein’s use of torture in justifying the decision to invade Iraq: “Accounts of torture and abuse have now risen to the top of the administration’s list of reasons that Iraq was invaded, ahead of the threat of weapons” (14).
On the 6th of January 2002, a U.S. senatorial delegation, led by Joseph Lieberman and John McCain, met with Karimov in Tashkent to thank Uzbekistan for its cooperation with the invasion of Afghanistan, portrayed as crucial in combating terrorism, and to solidify future relations between the two nations (15). After meeting with Karimov, Lieberman made the following remarks to the press:
[T]he extent of democracy and human rights matters to us. Unless Uzbekistan continues to move in that direction, there will be limits on the support that we can give. And, I thought — I should leave it to him, I’m sure — but, I thought that President Karimov was quite direct and responsive in saying that Uzbekistan is at a stage of its national development, little more than a decade after declaring independence from the long period of domination by Soviet Communism, where the extent of its democratization and human rights are not where they should be.
But, the question is, what is the direction in which it’s going? And I think that he was quite frank in acknowledging that there is a distance to go, and, more important, that he’s committed to seeing the country move in that direction. And I welcome that statement and that frankness, and that sense of hopefulness. In other words, I did not hear, if you will, defensiveness. I heard an acknowledgement that this is something that the country and the government has to work on and will work on. (16)
There were improvements, possibly because Karimov was afraid at the time of new American legislation of the sort mentioned above (to be discussed shortly).
According to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2002, the number of those arrested during the first seven months of 2002 declined significantly to a mere 300, in contrast to the 1,500 for any seven-month period from 1999 to 2001. In addition, 800 received amnesty. Furthermore, in January 2002, four police were sentenced to twenty years in prison for beating to death a suspected member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and for the severe beating of another suspect who had to spend months in the hospital. However, there were also reports that three senior police officers involved in the beatings escaped punishment.
In the month after the Senate delegation, the Justice Ministry registered the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan (IHROU) after four years of failing to do so. According to the U.S. State Department’s web site, a second human rights organization was registered by the government in March 2003 (4). In May of 2002, continuing with the International Religious Freedom Report, three officers of the National Security Service, were convicted in the beating death of a suspected member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, receiving prison sentences from four to fifteen years. Some courts began to respond to allegations of torture. Finally, in contrast to earlier periods, in the period covered by the 2002 report, there were no reports of religious leaders being harassed, arrested, detained, or disappeared.
In October of 2002, Lieberman and McCain introduced legislation to make U.S. military and financial aid to Central Asian nations contingent upon the improvement of their human rights records and the opening of their political systems (12). Such bills have not been successful, as will be discussed at a later point. Their lack of success may explain why Karimov still abuses human rights.
From January 2002 through March of 2003, Human Rights Watch documented five suspicious deaths of those held in custody for alleged ties to Islamic extremism. In reporting these deaths, Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch considers the repeated decision not to list Uzbekistan as a Country of Particular Concern to be “absurd” (17). In not taking this simple step, the U.S. is allowing a pre-existing war against Islam, one going well back into the days of Soviet religious repression, to play a role in the effort to prevent terrorism.
Given that the IMU had often used Taliban Afghanistan to launch attacks (5), the Uzbek government should feel indebted to the U.S. for its military operations, thus making it easier for the Uzbek government to be corrected. The fear of criticizing Karimov too harshly seems groundless.
To continue discussing further human rights abuses; in April of 2003, Abdujalil Aliqulov, a judge at the Fergana regional court for criminal affairs, ruled that the case against four defendants had been fabricated and that their confessions had been extracted under torture. With a not-guilty verdict, the defendants went free. That same month, Judge Aliqulov was placed under house arrest for what the government took to be the wrong verdict (18).
On the 26th of May 2003, authorities arrested the human rights defender and journalist Ruslan Sharipov along with two colleagues, Oleg Sarapulov and Azamat Mamankulov. The National Security Service had harassed all three men several times previously, harassment which included beatings and theft, warning them to stop criticizing the police and President Karimov. Sharipov was charged with homosexuality as well as having sex with minors. Although Sharipov is openly gay, the charges appear to have been selectively applied and, perhaps with regard to having sex with minors, fabricated in order to silence and shame a critic. When Human Rights Watch was granted the opportunity to speak with Sharipov in detention, he explained that the police threatened to rape him with a bottle, put a gas mask on him, and placed copies of his human rights articles before him on a table while shouting at him for long periods. In August, Sharipov was sentenced to five and half years in prison (19).
On the 26th of September 2003, Human Rights Watch reported in the article “Uzbekistan: Human Rights Defender Loses Appeal” that an Uzbek court upheld Sharipov’s conviction. In the same report, Sharipov is described as arriving at court with broken glasses, a swollen eye, and an injury above the eye. The police had an explanation for the injury, namely that there was a traffic accident on the way to court which injured Sharipov and no one else. The court dropped a charge of “antisocial behavior,” thus reducing Sharipov’s sentence from five and a half years to four, but upheld the remaining charges.
At great risk to himself, Sharipov wrote a letter to Kofi Annan dated the 5th of September 2003. The letter was smuggled out of prison, and is posted on the Human Rights Watch web site. Sharipov explains how before his first trial, he was forced to write a “suicide note” in which he stated his intention to kill himself. He was told that if he made any further appeals or complaints that he would “kill himself.” This is consistent with the cases of Emin Usman and Shovruk Ruzimuradov, as described above, who officially committed “suicide” but who, in fact, were pretty clearly murdered.
While in pre-trial detention, the police from the District Department of Internal Affairs knew they had to be careful so that the signs of torture would not be blatantly obvious during the trial. In his letter, Sharipov notes that he cannot explain everything that has been done to him – one form of humiliation, which he does not elaborate on, involved videotape -, but he reports that the police did find a way to torture him as a means to get him to plead “guilty”: “They put a gas mask on my head and sprayed an unknown substance into my throat, after which I could hardly breathe. They also injected an unknown substance into my veins and warned me that if I did not follow their instructions they would give me an injection of the AIDS virus.” He explains how he was coerced both into “confessing,” a coercion that included his being informed that his mother, younger brother, and even his attorneys would be tortured if he did not comply. In fact, as noted in the Human Rights Watch report mentioned above, masked men did kidnap and beat Sharipov’s public defender Surat Ikramov in late August. In Sharipov’s letter, he also expresses fear at being sent to a penal colony in which, as the police have informed him, there are prisoners waiting to kill him so that the state need not take responsibility for his death, presumably in case the “suicide” option fails to prove satisfactory. Sharipov also requested that a copy of the letter be sent to President Bush.
Some lawmakers have tried to make aid to Uzbekistan contingent on the improvement of human rights conditions there. In October of 2002, Lieberman and McCain introduced a proposed resolution according to which, “By continuing to suppress human rights and to deny citizens peaceful, democratic means of expressing their convictions, the nations of Central Asia risk fueling popular support for violent and extremist movements” (quoted in (12)).
In February of 2003, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen proposed similar legislation which states that “the Government of Uzbekistan continues to commit serious human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest, detention and torture in custody, particularly of Muslims who practice their religion outside state controls, to severely restrict freedom of speech, the press, religion, independent political activity, and nongovernmental organizations, and detains over 7,000 people for political or religious reasons” (20).
The Ros-Lehtinen bill was referred to the House Committee on International Relations as soon as it was proposed, and has seen no action since. There is no guarantee, but this is a pretty reliable reason to think that the bill is going nowhere. However, looking at things optimistically, the bill is not officially dead until Congress ends in 2004. One would have to have some access to inside information, such as leaks, to know for certain what is going on; but it seems safe to say that the U.S. government has not taken the same intense interest in Uzbek human rights as it has taken in Iraqi human rights, the latter supposedly calling for drastic intervention resulting in many deaths. Uzbek human rights, by contrast, do not even call for listing the country as being of Particular Concern. Nor do Uzbek human rights call for any actual legislation linking aid to their improvement, although it seems fair to say that the mere threat of such legislation has made Karimov improve his behavior to some degree, albeit not nearly enough. It is no great stretch to speculate that the U.S. government tends only to view human rights as a critical issue when it is useful to do so, e.g. natural resources, the military control of a region. The exceptions, such as Lieberman McCain Ros-Lehtinen, seem to be in a minority.
One might be tempted to argue that the United States could not and cannot be too aggressive in demanding greater freedom in Uzbekistan, since the United States needed Uzbekistan to launch its campaign in Afghanistan. But even if one assumes that the invasion of Afghanistan was a dire necessity, this is not a good explanation of American hesitation to promote democracy among the Uzbeks. Ever since 1999, if not earlier, Karimov had been pleading with other countries to wage war against the Taliban (21), and it was the Clinton administration which first designed a plan to do so, a plan which the Bush administration only considered with hesitation prior to 9/11 because of other priorities, such as the “war” on drugs and the “war” on pornography, and possibly even disdain for any Clintonian schemes (22). When the United States finally acted on this plan, the Uzbek government should have been in great debt to the U.S.
So why has the U.S. allowed Uzbekistan to operate in such an authoritarian and undemocratic manner, given the United State’s repeatedly stated intention of spreading democracy and respect for human dignity through the world? Natural resources are surely a factor (2). Another factor may be that the U.S. shares Karimov’s concern with regard to Muslim extremism and is happy to let him do much of the dirty work in controlling it – “dirty” here meaning oppressive and authoritarian. In other words, the United States is content to let fascism reign when it sees fascism as being in its own interests. The lesson to be learned is that freedom and democracy are not ends in themselves but good only when convenient. Obviously, they are not matters of principle.
A final note: Recently, Larry Lindsey, former chief economic adviser to President Bush (2001-2002), wrote that Americans are rare in that we view ourselves as a
cause and not just a nation. Our Declaration of Independence says that it is not only the right but also the duty of a people to throw off despotic government. That strand of thought is a cause of some of Europe’s uneasiness with our foreign policies. It is also a reason for our going to war twice in Europe in the first half of the past century and our stationing a large army there for the second half. (23)
Contrast Lindsey’s view of the United States’ role in the world to the estimate of Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
People around the world are quite capable of seeing that the United States has close, even intimate relations with many undemocratic regimes for the sake of American security and economic interests, and that, like many other countries, the United States struggles very imperfectly to balance its ideals with the realist imperatives it faces. A more honest acknowledgment of this reality and a considerable toning down of self-congratulatory statements about the United States’ unparalleled altruism on the world stage would be a big boost in the long run to a more credible pro-democracy policy. (24)
Central Asia is one place to look to understand how hypocritically the United States often behaves. This is only part of the story. I have not discussed in any depth the degrading economic conditions in Uzbekistan, the suspicious business activities of the Karimov family, or the other autocratic countries in Central Asia with which the U.S. enjoys close ties (25).
There is a serious risk that religious repression and dire economic conditions are encouraging the very sort of militancy which the war on terror is meant to prevent. In other words, the close and only mildly critical alliance with Karimov, along with other Central Asian dictators, is having an effect opposite to what is intended (12). In the case of Uzbekistan, the United States has even helped bankroll the torture and murder. We seem to be caught in an ugly cycle in which autocracy breeds resentment which breeds terrorism which breeds autocracy. A genuine promotion of democracy might be a better policy. Even if America does not believe that democracy and freedom are ends in themselves, perhaps it can at least be persuaded of their usefulness.
1. George W. Bush, 23 September 2003, remarks to the General Assembly of the United Nations as recorded by FDCH e-Media, Inc. and reported in The New York Times.
2. 25 August 2003, “Not Just an Airbase” Financial Times.
3. In terms of human rights, the most striking difference between Saddam Hussein and Islam Karimov is that Karimov did nothing analogous to gassing the Kurds. But Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds cannot have been the reason to go to war, since soon after this atrocity, the U.S. helped Iraq’s dictator by increasing American subsidized agricultural exports to Iraq to compensate for farm land damaged by the gassing. One motive appears to have been to help American agribusiness and high tech industries. See Noam Chomsky, 2000, “US Iraq Policy” in Anthony Arnove (ed.) Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War. London: Pluto Press.
4. May 2003, U.S. Department of State. www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2924.htm
5. Ahmed Rashid, 2002, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, Chapter 7.
6. Bruce Pannier, 23 December 1997, “Uzbekistan: Wahhabis – Fundamentalists of the Fergana Valley” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Inc.
7. James Meek, 17 February 1999, “Uzbek Capital Paralysed by Bombs Aimed at President” The Guardian.
8. Reuters, agency material, 26 November 2001, “Uzbeks’ Most Wanted Man Dies of Wounds in Kabul, Juma Namangani” Financial Times.
9. In addition to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2001, details about Usman and his death are derived from Vitali Ponomarev, 14 March 2001 “Uzbekistan: Writer Emin Usman – A New Victim of Authorities’ Repressive Campaign” Eurasianet.org.
10. 14 March 2002, “United States Finds New Strategic Partner. It Is Uzbekistan,” Kommersant, Moscow; reported as “Uzbek Leader Gets Bouquets Not Brickbats During US Visit” BBC Monitoring Service.
11. Polat Doniyorov, 27 March 2002, Narodnoye Slovo, reported 28 March 2002 as “By Aiding Central Asia to Fight ‘Terrorism’ USA Strengthening Security in the World” BBC Monitoring Service.
12. David Filipov, 27 October 2002, “Terror Crackdown May Push More to Extremism” The Boston Globe.
13. David Leigh, Nick Paton Walsh, and Ewen MacAskill, 18 October 2003, “Special Report: Ambassador Accused After Criticizing US” The Guardian.
14. David E. Sanger and James Risen, 4 October 2003, “President Says Report on Arms Vindicates War” The New York Times.
15. 6 January 2002, 14:30 gmt, Uzbek Television First channel, Tashkent; reported in “Uzbek President Hails ‘Historic’ Visit of US Senate Delegation – Uzbek TV” BBC Monitoring Service.
16. 6 January 2002, “Press Conference of Senatorial Delegation Led by Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain,” U.S. Department of State, usembassy.state.gov/
17. Acacia Shields, 27 march 2003, “The Meaning of Concern: Washington Indulges Uzbekistan’s Atrocities” Human Rights Watch.
18. 5 October 2003, Centrasia web site, reported as “Uzbek Judge Under House Arrest for Not Guilty Verdict” BBC Monitoring Service.
19. Elizabeth Andersen, 29 May 2003, “Uzbekistan: Rights Defender Detained on Homosexuality Charges” Human Rights Watch; 13 August 2003, “Free Uzbek Rights Defender Ruslan Sharipov” Human Rights Watch.
20. Thomas: Legislative Information on the Internet: thomas.loc.gov
21. 9 May 2002 14:00 gmt, Uzbek Television First channel, Tashkent; reported in “Uzbek President: A ‘Satisfied’ Europe Takes Threat of Extremism Lightly – More” BBC Monitoring Service.
22. Julian Borger, 5 August 2002, “Bush Held Up Plan to Hit al-Qaida” The Guardian.
23. Larry Lindsey, 27 August 2003, “Land of the Free and of the Fair” Financial Times.
24. Thomas Carothers, May/June 2003, “Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror” (letter) Foreign Affairs 82(3).
25. For a discussion of poverty in Uzbekistan and how it leads to human trafficking, see 22 August 2003, “Uzbek Woman Recalls Her Days as Sex Slave” Centrasia web site, reported by BBC Monitoring Service; for a discussion of suspicious business activities in the Karimov family as well as some discussion of Uzbek poverty, see David Stern, 19 August 2003, “Uzbekistan Offers Rich Pickings for Leader’s Daughter” Financial Times; for a critique of friendly U.S. relations to autocracies, see Thomas Carothers, Jan./Feb. 2003, “Promoting Democracy and Fighting Terror” (article) Foreign Affairs 82(1).