America Turns a Blind Eye Towards its Uzbek Host
By Priscilla Patton
Special to The Perspective
Partner of GlobalVision News Network
November 9, 2001
U.S. support for Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov -- whose crackdown on political opponents and religious leaders has caused widespread dissatisfaction may result in the very anti-U.S. government Washington hopes to avoid.
NAMANGAN, Uzbekistan, Nov. 8, 2001 -- Ahmad Abdulleav is the perfect host. An ex-boxer, he sits upright and confidently, proudly talks about his heritage, his home and the beauty of the historic valley where he lives and makes sure the table is groaning with food and drink.
But eventually, along with the unending flow of dates and raisins and almonds which come to the guest table, come the stories of repression. Each neighbor ticks off the vital statistics for their family: how many sons, how many daughters, how many grandchildren -- and how many family members in jail.
There is the woman whose husband was put in prison, having confessed to a crime he did not commit only when the police threatened to rape his wife in front of him. There is another neighbor in prison for talking and being quoted by name in a western newspaper.
Even the host has not been spared: one of his sons, age 27, is still in prison on vague charges of anti-state activities.
As the U.S.-led war against terrorism continues to throttle up, wary eyes are being cast towards Uzbekistan in general and the Fergana Valley, where Namangan is located, in particular. This is home of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a distant relation to the Taliban which runs Afghanistan; like the Taliban, the IMU hopes to install a similar strict Islamic regime in Uzbekistan.
That is the last thing the United States would want to have happen. But ironically, it may be the U.S. support for Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov -- whose crackdown on the IMU, political opponents and religious leaders has caused widespread dissatisfaction -- which results in the very anti-U.S. government Washington hopes to avoid.
Abdulleav, a leading human rights advocate who admires, likes and cheers on the United States, bluntly offers up a warning over the pouring of green tea: "If the Americans help just Karimov and not the people, then this place will become Iran."
About 88 percent of the Uzbek population is Muslim. "Our people are sheep but in a few moments they could become a lion," Abdulleav, 53, said through a translator. "If the people gather around, it can turn around."
With a southern border with Afghanistan, Karimov was one of the first to embrace the U.S. effort against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network and open up his nation's military bases to U.S. troops.
In return, President Bush specifically cited the IMU during his Sept. 20 speech to Congress about the new worldwide effort against terrorism. That gave Karimov what he has long craved, credibility for his own crackdown.
But while that nod from Bush caused many happy faces among Karimov and his advisors, it sent shudders of concern among human rights advocates here as well as the many families who have seen relatives hauled off to jail, tortured and, in some cases, allegedly murdered for such seemingly mundane activities as practicing their religion, trying to start Internet cafes or criticizing the policies of the government.
"I think the Uzbeks are very happy with the new alliance," said Acacia Shields the former Central Asia regional director for Human Rights Watch. "They expect the new alliance will mean the United States and the European Union will criticize them less because of the terrorist threat Uzbekistan is facing."
Human Rights Watch says there are about 7,000 Uzbeks are now in jails for essentially trying to practice religion outside the state-sanctioned mosques, handing out religious literature or wearing "religious clothing." Almost all were convicted in speedy trials that ended in long prison sentences.
And lest anyone think the new presence of U.S. troops, businessmen and other western eyes in Uzbekistan has already softened the government's stance, Karimov reinforced his position on Oct. 9. He went on television to warn anyone passing out unapproved leaflets would pay the price: "Those who are spreading propaganda on behalf of religion should be recognized as being supportive of evildoers," he said.
The question now looms large: whether the U.S. influence will temper the repression which seems to lurk throughout Uzbekistan -- and thus having the United States be remembered by Uzbeks as an advocate for positive change -- or whether U.S. officials will turn a blind eye to the problems and eventually be linked as co-conspirators in the crackdown that will produce another festering region of anti-U.S. hatred.
A New Reality?
Karimov is not oblivious to the new reality, especially now that many more Americans know whereUzbekistan is located and are paying more attention to what occurs here.
In an Oct. 5 press conference, he acknowledged that U.S. officials had raised questions of human rights violations with him and that there were "a number of problems" in his country.
But Karimov insisted that "the dynamic" is one of improvement. He said after former Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited Tashkent, the capital, last year and saw the changes "there was a certain transition in the U.S. attitude." Diplomats in Tashkent questioned that interpretation.
Just how serious the terrorist threat Uzbekistan is facing remains unclear. Western officials in Tashkent, speaking on the condition of anonymity, do not believe Uzbekistan faces a serious terrorist threat in the near future.
Depending on who is counting, the IMU has between 300 and 3,000 members, mostly ethnic Uzbeks but also a smattering of Tajiks, Afghans, Pakistanis and others. While not directly linked to the Taliban regime which rules Afghanistan, they have been described as "fellow travelers" whose common heading of the words of bin Laden make them allies against the west and more secular Muslim nations.
But unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the IMU has not been able to take and hold territory and position itself as a credible force. Additionally, the lack of mountains in Uzbekistan -- they are only here in the valley and along the border with Tajikistan limits where the guerrilla force can engage in hit-and-run tactics.
The group was responsible for some armed confrontations in 1999 and 2000, coming over the border of Afghanistan and staging incidents in Uzbekistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Karimov also blames the IMU for explosions in Tashkent that killed16 people and wounded more than 100 on Feb. 16, 1999.
In an effort to broaden their appeal, the IMU chhanged its name earlier this year to the Islamic Movement of Turkistan, the historic name for the entire Central Asia region. But that appears to have had little effect in drawing new support to its cause. Most of its members now are believed to be fighting in Afghanistan and those still in the region are hiding from the thorough Uzbek intelligence network.
For Karimov, the IMU has become a double-edged sword.
While providing an outlet and organization for disaffected youth, the IMU has also given Karimov the public justification for his tactics. Regardless, Karimov has used the IMU to justify crackdowns on pious Muslims, including theHizb-ut-Tahir party, or Party of Liberation. That group seeks an Islamic -- albeit anti-Jewish, anti-American -- Muslim state through peaceful means.
"Uzbekistan has found itself trapped in a vicious cycle of repression and instability, as the government of President Islam Karimov grows increasingly anxious about incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
This group, now based in Afghanistan, has raised tensions across the region but these have been exacerbated by the response of the government of Uzbekistan, which has stepped up repressive measures, driving moderate Muslims and opposition figures into the arms of extremists. Uzbekistan has remained outside the mainstream of reform, choosing to run a nearly closed economy and an authoritarian political system," the International Crisis Group said in a September 2001 report.
The concern facing the United States is that a collapse in Uzbekistan, the largest nation in Central Asia and the one with by far the largest army, will likely trigger similar upheaval throughout Central Asia. Neighboring Tajikistan has already had a bloody civil war and violence in Uzbekistan would endanger U.S. efforts in Afghanistan by essentially closing off those nations to U.S. troops and covert operations.
Tensions already exist. Uzbekistan allowed or supported armed incursions into Tajikistan and harbors dissidents whom Tajikistan accuses of treason. Tajikistan likewise permitted the presence of the IMU on its territory, from whence it has conducted incursions into Uzbekistan. While supposedly searching for IMU targets, Uzbekistan bombed Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, causing numerous civilian casualties. Uzbekistan mined undemarcated borders between it and the other two countries, resulting in dozens of fatalities.
Life Under A Crackdown
But the absence of any real terrorist threat has not made life any easier for those living here in Namangan and elsewhere in the Fergana Valley, considered the epicenter of the religious independence. The crackdown is obvious.
For example, the valley is the only place in Uzbekistan, which exports gas and oil, where there are lines at gasoline stations. The reason: the government limits petrol supplies allegedly to thwart the terrorists.
At checkpoints in most of the other parts of Uzbekistan, most cars are given a cursory examination, then waved on through. But trying to leave the Fergana Valley means a detail, lengthy search of car and body.
And anyone who has a western visitor come to their house probably already has their phone tapped and a regular member of the secret police watching their house.
But beneath the shadows in the city's bazaars, one can still find vendors selling cassettes with the words of independent and radical clerics, urging their flocks to continue to practice true Islam and, in some cases, rebel against the Karimov government.
According to human rights workers and Uzbek citizens, the repression began shortly after Karimov, Uzbekistan's former communist boss, took power after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the mold of the former Soveit Union, he methodically shut down the independent media, crushed the political opposition, then turned his attention to the mosques. From 1992 to1997, the size of the Uzbek security force grew and there were sporadic arrests of "disappearances" of prominent Muslim leaders.
The murders of several police officers and government officials in December 1997 in Namangan providence provided the Karimov government with the reason to intensify its crackdown on Muslims. Police almost always found drugs or bullets in the pockets of those arrested. Human rights advocates said that those arrested are subjected to a variety of torture, including hanging by wrists and feet, beatings with bottles filled with water or truncheons, electroshock and rape. Meanwhile, the wives and mothers of those arrested are the objects of so-called "hate rallies," at which neighbors are assembled to denounce them as "enemies of the people."
Over the years, the political and religious repression was joined by economic problems.
Although Uzbekistan did not suffer the dramatic drop in GNP like other Soviet republics immediately after the breakup, it continues to have a slow 1 percent drop each year since independence. The Uzbek middle class has been eroded, there is little real privatization available and there is increased poverty, Most young people are left with three options: drugs, alcohol or Islam; so far it has been alcohol.
The average wage is now about $20 a month. Economic conditions are so bad that the International Monetary Fund joined a host of western businesses which left Uzbekistan earlier this year, citing frustrations over reforms that never happened.
The tightening economy, coupled with Karimov's crackdown, has become a potent formula to breed resentment among the general population. It has also radicalized some Muslims, which helped give the IMU some initial support, western officials said. Anyone the government wanted to arrest was called a practitioner of "Wahabism" after the name of the radical form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
"When they say Wahabism (Wahhabism), they mean fundamentalist," Shields said. "That includes people who were state imams (Muslim clerics) and who fell out of favor, maybe because they became too popular with the people. Maybe it was some reformer they wanted to become a KGB informer. Law enforcement agents just rounded them up, taking young men who attended services because they have a beard "like a goat."
Uzbek human rights activists said it is easy for Karimov to target the Fergana Valley, since historically it has been a bold, religious area. "Even during the Soviet Union, Islam society came together in the Fergana Valley. When they had to leave Burkhara (a historical Islam city), they came to Fergana and made it the leading point for Islam," said Tolib Yakubov of the Uzbekistan Society of Human Rights. "Then it was far away from everything."
Uzbek officials have also been concerned about Namangan since the two leaders of the IMU grew up in the area. The leaders, military leader Jumaboi Khojiyev, who once served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan, and political leader Tahir Yuldash, fled the country in 1992 and founded the IMU in 1996.
In a statement on religion put out by the president's press service, the government said events in Namangan province at the end of 1997 "set society seriously thinking of our youth" and their membership in "certain religious groups." The law was soon changed to prohibit ordinary people from wearing religious outfits in public places, requiring missionaries to obtain official registration and prohibiting individuals to pass out religious materials without prior approval.
"The government of Uzbekistan is doing its best to provide its citizens with guaranteed rights for freedom of conscience," the news release said. "The realities of our life bare witness to that."
The State Department's annual report on international religious freedom, released in October, cited the Uzbek government's alleged abuses "against many devout Muslims for their religious beliefs."
However, it did not include Uzbekistan on the list of "countries of particular concern."
But critics on Capitol Hill have pressed the issue. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., was successful in getting an amendment passed by the Senate to require a State Department report in six months on how much U.S. financial and military assistance has been given to Uzbekistan, who in Uzbekistan is using those resources and if those units are engaged in any human rights violations.
"On the one hand, we understand the need for support. On the other hand, it is terribly important that we not uncritically align ourselves with governments which torture citizens," Wellstone said on the Senate floor.
Wellstone said it would be wrong for the United States to ignore what is happening in Uzbekistan. "To do so implies that in the war against terrorism, anything goes," Wellstone said. "To ignore Uzbek abuses could add fuel to the fire that this is not truly a war on terrorism but is a war on Islam."
Human rights activists said that at least 15 persons have died in police custody from torture over the past two years. One of the most recent was Ravshan Haidov, of Tashkent, arrested on October 17.
Police returned his body to his family the next day. Haidov, 32, the father of two, had a broken neck, a broken leg, a crushed back and bruises all over his body. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
"The people are not satisfied, but they are silent now," Yakubov said. "But when the government takes and keeps its powers, and uses that power as a weapon directed against the people, we cannot say how long it will be until the people respond."