U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in Tashkent in October 2011. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in Tashkent in October 2011. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

What US can’t accept in Belarus, it supports in Uzbekistan

Last week, President Obama signed into law a bill that expands sanctions against Belarus, whose authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko continues to imprison his opponents and critics. Lukashenko unleashed the latest crackdown hours after the flawed December 2010 presidential vote, which declared him winner of a fourth term. Repression in Belarus is ongoing. Last week, authorities further tightened their grip on the media by restricting access to blacklisted websites. On Monday, a district court in Minsk jailed an independent reporter for filming a one-man protest vigil in front of the KGB headquarters.

The Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, which Obama signed into law a week ago after its passage through Congress, updates legislation from 2004 and 2006. Its aim is to compel Lukashenko, also known as the last European dictator, to release his jailed opponents and stop repressing the media. Among others provisions, the law expands a ban on issuing U.S. visas to Belarusian officials involved into the crackdown. It requires the U.S. administration to monitor Internet censorship in Belarus, and inform the Congress of any arms sales to the regime.

But whereas the European dictator and his officials are not welcome in the U.S., his Uzbek counterpart, President Islam Karimov, has received stunningly cordial treatment from the Obama administration. A former Communist party leader, Karimov has ruled nonstop, with the help of referendums and rigged elections, since 1989. He personally oversaw the May 2005 massacre in the city of Andijan, and his regime virtually annihilated the independent press after it spread the word about those brutalities.

With five reporters imprisoned because of their work, Uzbekistan is the leading jailer of journalists in Eurasia. Until November, the president’s own nephew, journalist Dzhamshid Karimov, was among those locked up. He had languished at a psychiatric facility since September 2006, when authorities abducted him from the street and forcibly hospitalized him without any medical diagnosis or court order.

There are scores of examples to position the Uzbek leader as far more brutal and dictatorial than Lukashenko’s regime. The human rights abuses include forced child labor; arbitrary detentions and torture of detainees; harassment of lawyers and imprisonment of rights defenders; absolute state control over the media and Internet; and eviction of the last international monitor–Human Rights Watch–from its offices in Tashkent. All of these and other issues are listed in the U.S. State Department’s own 2010 Human Rights report for Uzbekistan, which brands the country as “an authoritarian state.”

Yet, in September, Karimov received a warm phone call from Obama, and heard appraisal on his “progress” in human rights from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her October visit to Tashkent. Also last year, the U.S. Congress removed what was left of the 2004 arms embargo imposed against Uzbekistan in connection with its grave human rights record. The Pentagon is planning to hand over used military equipment to the Uzbek regime, the independent news website EurasiaNet reported in December. Karimov’s regime is also getting a raise from the Pentagon for providing “logistical, military, and other support” to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, EurasiaNet said Tuesday.

It’s no secret that Uzbekistan’s proximity to Afghanistan, and the heavy use of its territory as a land supply route for American troops there, are the main reason behind Obama’s policy toward Karimov. Since Osama bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces and the bombing of Pakistani soldiers by American drones in 2011, Pakistan has virtually shut the ground routes formerly used by the Pentagon, leaving Uzbek territory as its only option for supplying the troops in Afghanistan.

But no geopolitical or military interest should justify any kind of support–be it a phone call or a courtesy handshake–of such a repressive regime. Policymakers and executors in Washington must realize that by dealing with Karimov and equipping his army, they are participating in the repression. They’re helping him to stifle the media and perpetuate abuses. Karimov already showed the world in 2005 what his army and special forces will do with weapons and training received from the West.

The U.S. “has ongoing, serious concerns about the state of human rights in Uzbekistan and raises those concerns with the government of Uzbekistan every chance we get,” Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, told The Daily Beast last month. He said that “human rights in Uzbekistan are going to improve because Uzbekistan determines it is in its own interest to improve them,” The Daily Beast reported.

The administration must understand: even if they scold Karimov on his government’s rights record during private talks, no criticism leaves the negotiations room in a country where all independent media has been silenced. Rather, the state-controlled media tells the Uzbeks that the U.S. is his friend and an ally.

As one of the initiators of the legislation on Belarus, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, said, “With these sanctions we stand with the Belarusian people and against their oppressors,” as Charter 97 reported. Who will stand with the Uzbek people and against its oppressor?