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Uzbekistan: Washington Must Stand Up for Democracy

ICC Note:

“As the Obama administration seeks to reengage President Islam Karimov’s government in Tashkent… [the U.S.] should ensure that Uzbekistan’s respect for basic individual rights is a central topic of discussion,” Eurasia Net reports. Uzbekistan’s human rights violations have greatly hindered the religious freedom of Christians and other religious groups.

By Patrick Griffith

2/16/2011 Uzbekistan (EurasiaNet) – Robert Blake, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, is scheduled to be in Uzbekistan on February 17-18 for the second Annual Bilateral Consultations between the United States and Uzbekistan. As the Obama administration seeks to reengage President Islam Karimov’s government in Tashkent, Blake should ensure that Uzbekistan’s respect for basic individual rights is a central topic of discussion.

A number of issues make Central Asia in general, and Uzbekistan in particular, strategically important to Washington. Large reserves of natural gas and Uzbekistan’s central location make it commercially important. Uzbekistan has also emerged as a critical cog in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. It serves a key role in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a web of land and air routes used for the transport of non-lethal goods to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. An Uzbek-Afghan rail link is under construction and Uzbekistan is currently providing some of Kabul’s electricity.

Strategic considerations risk pressuring the United States to overlook the fact that Karimov leads one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Human rights violations are endemic in Uzbekistan. Independent groups continue to document the widespread use of forced child labor in cotton fields. Members of unregistered Christian and Muslim religious groups face persecution. And criminal defendants report numerous cases of torture during pre-trial detention.

The case of Akzam Turgunov is representative of this repression.

Turgunov is the founder and chairman of the Tashkent based human rights group Mazlum, and director of the Tashkent section of the political opposition party Erk. Previously detained for over a year on politically motivated charges in 1998 for his activism on a neighborhood committee, authorities again arrested Turgunov in July 2008.

At the time of his arrest, Turgunov was working as a lay public defender and investigating official corruption in the semi-autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. He was accused of extortion by a client’s ex-husband after attempting to collect a court judgment on her behalf. Police detained him incommunicado for 18 days, during which time an interrogator poured boiling water down Turgunov’s back, causing him to lose consciousness and suffer severe burns.

After a trial—which failed to meet even the minimum international standards for due process—the court sentenced Turgunov to 10 years in prison. The prosecution’s main “evidence” presented at trial was a statement allegedly signed by the accuser. The court prevented Turgunov from calling his accuser as a witness. As other activists were prohibited from entering the courtroom, the trial judge’s niece called out: He will never be free. A few months later, Turgunov’s lawyer had his license to practice law revoked as part of the governments “re-licensing” procedure.

Turgunov is now detained at a prison camp where, at 59, he is forced to work in a brick-making factory seven days per week. The government also denies him adequate food, clothing, and medical care. As a result of these deplorable conditions, he weighs less than 50 kilograms.

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