Staunton, April 22 – Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov’s “suppression of religious and political disagreements, together with extreme authoritarianism, total corruption, ineffective economics and the absence of social justice is contributing to the spread of the conviction there that positive changes in society can be achieved only by force.”
And that growing conviction, according to a 143-page study of conditions in that most populous Central Asian country, its author Vladimir Ponomarev of Memorial says, is creating the basis for the strengthening of the positions of jihadist groups” rather than weakening them as Karimov and his backers claim (www.agentura.ru/experts/vponomarev/).
Ponomarev’s report, entitled “Political Repressions in Uzbekistan in 2009-2010, was financed by the Open Society Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy and provides a wealth of detail about conditions in Karimov’s Uzbekistan. But each of his 11 conclusions deserves particular attention.
First of all, the Memorial expert says, “Uzbekistan, which has been ruled for 22 years by the former Communist leader Islam Karimov remains one of the most repressive states of the world,” a country in which there is no legal opposition or an independent media and in which “political repression is an indivisible part of state policy.”
Second, “the use of mass repression,” which Karimov began in the 1990s, “continues to this day.” There are now “several thousand political prisoners” and more than 1200 others who are being sought on the basis of such charges. Moreover, over the last two years, “the extent of repressions rose significantly and now appear to exceed even the high level of 2004-2006.”
Third, to this day, Uzbekistan’s criminal code contains various provisions that limit fundamental freedoms, including those which “criminalize any religious activity not sanctioned by the state” and others which define “terrorism” so broadly that almost anyone can be charged with that crime by Uzbek officials.
Fourth, Ponomarev writes, “a large number of [Uzbekistan’s] Muslims, whose actions do not represent a threat to public order and security as before are being condemned on the basis of fabricated accusations of terrorism and extremism.” And most of their convictions are based on confessions obtained by torture.
Fifth, according to the Memorial study, “the main enemy of the state in 2009-2010 were declared to be the Jihadists,” a term which Uzbek official employ to describe “not only the memb ers of the few terrorist groups but also members of various informal Islamic communities which supposedly express ‘radical views.’”
Sixth, despite Tashkent’s claims of a massive upsurge in terrorist activity as justification for the crackdowns, “there is no data” about any terrorist act except for three incidents in May 2009, and “there is no information [at all] about links between the local ‘Jihadists’ with such organizations as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the Union of ‘Islamic Jihad.’”
Seventh, because Tashkent’s repressive actions touch “not only marginal groups but have become part of the daily life of Uzbekistan,” they have become themselves “an important source of social-political tension” because they appear to justify the arguments of those who say that “positive changes in society can be achieved only by means of force.”
Eighth, just as was the case after the Andijan events of 2005, the Tashkent authorities appear to be using repression against independent human rights activists and journalists because they fear that such people will be the source of “alternative” and independent information and that that in turn “can stimulate protest attitudes in society.
Ninth, given the tight lid that Karimov’s regime has put on any information about the use of force by militants in 2009, it appears, Memorial’s Ponomarev says, that “the powers are afraid also that in the case of even limited success by Jihadist actions, the latter may serve as a model for emulation by others and give an impulse to the rise of new anti-government groups.”
Tenth, Ponomarev argues, “the West (like the partners of Uzbekistan inside the CIS as well) are underestimating the seriousness and extent of the problems connected with political repressions in Uzbekistan and their possible dramatic influence on regional stability” across Central Asia.
In contrast to the situation in 2002-2003, he continues, Western representatives have focused only “about 30” cases involving civil society activists and the democratic opposition, the freeingof which is assessed by some of them as evidence of ‘positive changes’” by the Tashkent leadership.
But in fact and just like in Soviet times, Tashkent is using these people “as hostages for political trade with the West” and is arresting new groups for every one individual it may choose to free. Indeed, the Memorial expert writes, “many are convinced” that the West is “not taking sufficient steps to change the situation.”
And finally, eleventh, Ponomarev aregues, “the current Realpolitik of the US and the European Union toward Uzbekistan needs to be reviewed, especially in the context of the latest events in the Middle East which can be repeated in Central Asia as well,” with Uzbekistan being a candidate for a Libyan rather than Egyptian scenario.
“It should be remembered,” the Memorial expert writes, “that during the period of active cooperation with the United States in 2001-2003, Uzbekistan annually freed up to 1000 political prisoners which not only did not create any problems regarding the stability of the domestic political situation but on the contrary made possible a reduction in the level of tensions” there.
And it is also necessary to remember, Ponomarev says, that Karimov’s “’war with Islam’ under the cover of the struggle with terrorism … can have catastrophic consequences for Central Asia. The use of mass repressions not only represents a clear violation of Uzbekistan’s international obligations but represents a threat to the security and stability of the region.”