With Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov scheduled to visit the Czech Republic next week, a coalition of human rights organizations has been urging his host, President Milos Zeman, to deny Karimov the "prestige and recognition associated with an official state visit." Today they are horrified by Zeman’s blistering response.
In a February 10 open letter, international watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Zeman that Karimov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world and has been "rightly shunned by most western leaders," particularly after Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. For Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an independent international probe into the Andijan killings the European Union, including the Czech Republic, had imposed targeted sanctions on the Uzbek government between 2005 and 2009, the letter noted.
Should he meet Karimov during the scheduled February 20-22 visit, the activists urged Zeman to push the Uzbek leader on his regime’s gross human rights violations and to hold a joint news conference to allow journalists to question Karimov. (Karimov hasn’t taken questions in public for years.)
Clearly irritated, Zeman fired back in an open letter February 11 that the visit was a “diplomatic courtesy,” the invitation for which had been issued by his predecessor (translation by Czech NGO People in Need):
Second, President Islam Karimov recently held talks with senior officials of the European Union in Brussels. I did not think you were protesting against the visit.
Third, the United States evaluated Uzbekistan as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. I did not think you protested against this American view protested.
I wish you more awareness and less hypocrisy.
The rights groups fired back, pointing out, for example, that Klaus's visit to Uzbekistan took place in 2004, before the Andijan killings, and that Karimov visited Brussels at NATO's invitation not the EU's, and that most senior European officials refused to meet him. Moreover, the rights groups noted, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso used his meeting with Karimov to insist that “a strengthening of relations with Uzbekistan, for which the European Union was ready in principle, is strictly dependent on Uzbek reforms and progress, notably regarding human rights, democratization and the rule of law.”
In this context it’s also worth noting that Zeman has refused to rescind the invitation to another former Soviet leader with authoritarian tendencies: Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, who is battling pro-democracy protests in his home country, is scheduled to visit in April. But Prague Mayor Tomas Hudecek said on February 4 that the Prague City Hall would not be open to the embattled Ukrainian leader.