The activist site WikiLeaks has released another batch of alleged diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent describing the background to appointments of Gulnara Karimova, President Islam Karimov's daughter, and Zeromax, the conglomerate now seized by the state, where she was alleged to have had a controlling role.
A cable dated February 4, 2008 cites a redacted source who said Karimova's appointment was a "good sign" and said Karimova would be good for promoting Uzbek culture and was "more qualified" than her predecessors. This source also predicated (wrongly, as it turned out) that Karimova would be made "deputy prime minister" by 2009. The source added, "He also said (protect) that 'no one' at MFA wants the job of working for her'". Understood.
The big bonus for this appointment, the cable writer explained, was that Karimova automatically gained diplomatic immunity -- and more security in traveling abroad to Europe and the U.S. -- so that a warrant issued in New Jersey for her arrest after fleeing the U.S. with her children in 2001 "following a messy divorce and custody battle" would have no effect.
The cable also relates the U.S. Embassy's conviction that Karimova is involved in Zeromax:
Embassy political FSN believed that Karimova's appointment is an attempt to provide her with diplomatic cover so that she may be able to travel freely once again to Europe, and possibly even to the United States, to inspect her family's finances. Karimova is widely seen as controlling the Zeromax corporation, which is headquartered in Switzerland and controls a large stake in many of the key sectors of the Uzbek economy, including its gas, oil, and gold extraction industries.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Russia talking nice about cooperation over supply lines to Afghanistan through Central Asia, other U.S. officials are giving indications that Washington is interested in cooperating more with China in Central Asia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia just visited China, where he mentioned that the U.S. might be interested in collaborating with China in Central Asia -- via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This would be a remarkable about-face for Washington, which has held the SCO at arm's length (to put it generously). And it would be even more remarkable if the SCO reciprocated, given its history as an organization basically dedicated to keeping the U.S. out of Central Asia.
Blake gave a press conference in Beijing, and this was in his opening statement:
In addition to our bilateral engagement we talked about the importance of greater engagement with relevant regional organizations. In Central Asia the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seeks to bolster security, economic and cultural cooperation between China, Russia and Central Asia. We see the potential for greater U.S.-China dialogue on areas of mutual interest such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism in support of the SCO’s efforts.
Through greater engagement with regional organizations across South and Central Asia we seek to facilitate spheres of cooperation among regional organizations that reflect the geopolitical and economic realities of a 21st Century Asia. China’s support will be critical in this effort.
And then later, in the Q&A:
QUESTION: [Inaudible] the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, so will it become a principle in terms of U.S. and China cooperation of Central Asia?
When Human Rights Watch announced that they had been kicked out of Uzbekistan earlier this week, the director of the organization's office in Tashkent, Steve Swerdlow, invoked the U.S.'s growing military relationship with Uzbekistan:
"Uzbekistan is increasingly playing a strategic role in the war in Afghanistan," Swerdlow says. "For that reason, NATO and Germany, which has an air base in Uzbekistan now, and the United States, which is using what is known as the northern distribution network to route these supplies, and the EU, have been increasingly warming ties with Uzbekistan and engaging with the government."
Swerdlow calls on the international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, to condemn Uzbekistan's actions in regard to HRW and overall human rights issues in the country.
(As an aside: This news seemed to make a bigger splash in the wider media than any story from Uzbekistan in some time. Why does it make so much more news when an international human rights organization is kicked out than when, say, actual human rights violations happen?)
The relationship between U.S.-backed human rights advocates and U.S.-Uzbekistan military cooperation is naturally fraught, as Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive governments on the planet, and the U.S. faces at least some pressure to make note of that. The Guardian has reported, citing a U.S. diplomatic cable, that Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, has explicitly threatened to shut down the Northern Distribution Network, over Washington's support for an Uzbekistan human rights campaigner. (The cable still hasn't been released.)
[T]he dictatorial president recently flew into a rage because the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, presented a Women of Courage award in Washington to a newly released Uzbek human rights campaigner, Mutabar Tadjibayeva.
A rare occasion indeed -- a political prisoner in Uzbekistan has reached the end of his term and been released on schedule -- without being slapped with a fresh sentence as has been repeatedly the case with others.
Rashid Bekzhan, brother of Muhammad Salih, the leader of the opposition party Erk, and a member of Erk himself served 12 years from the time of his arrest on February 18, 1999, fergananews.com reported, citing the Uzbek Committee to Free Prisoners of Conscience.
The Committee says it was touch and go -- right before the expiration of his sentence, Bekzhan was thrown in a punishment cell and it was feared that he might meet the same fate as many others, who have been tried in closed prison proceedings for alleged disciplinary infractions and handed new terms.
It's hard to know what made the difference in Bekzhan's case. Possibly, mindful of the revolutions in the Middle East, in part stirred by the unfair jail sentences of authoritarian regimes, the Uzbek authorities decided to let this one go, says fergananews.com. Perhaps they felt Bekzhan might be subdued after so long a term. Perhaps it's a token gesture to EU and US officials who have been quietly raising prisoners' cases, but it is not certain they raised this one.
Authoritarian Uzbekistan is notorious for its tight grip on the media. But it's probably safe to assume that Tashkent knows what's been going on in northern Africa in recent months. Perhaps this is why the government is patching up a hole in its spotty control over access to information: mobile phone technology that allows users to view blocked Internet sites on cell phones and quickly distribute information via text message.
Russia’s RBC Daily reports that Uzbek regulators have demanded mobile operators notify the government about mass distributions of SMS messages with “suspicious content.” A source at the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information, which regulates the wireless market, told RBC Daily that mobile operators would also have to switch their Internet networks off whenever authorities wish.
The BBC Uzbek Service says that in a March 3 broadcast, Uzbek state television claimed some 50 firms had "abused the favorable investment climate" and "brotherly relations" and had "hidden from taxation" and were closed. Some, including Turkuaz, Gunesh, and Kaynak, were charged with supporting the banned movement known as "Nurchilar" in Uzbekistan, or the Nurcus, followers of the teachings of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and/or Fetullah Gulen. According to Uzbek television, about 400 million soums (approximately $174,000) were confiscated from the stores' accounts and managers were prosecuted.
A source in the Turkish Embassy in Tashkent who requested anonymity told the BBC that numerous special forces arrived in buses and raided Turkuaz, a large supermarket in Tashkent.
"Armed agents also burst into the office of Vokhid Gunesh, the manager, forced him to lay down on the floor and beat him," the source added. Gunesh was held in the store for several hours while police ransacked the shelves and confiscated goods, and was later hospitalized. Attempts by Turkish consular officials to visit him were reportedly blocked.
A unnamed Turkish Embassy official called the actions "terrorism," and another Embassy employee who wished to remain anonymous said that such raids by Uzbek police had taken place before, but had never been been so brutal, BBC reported. The employee noted that the Uzbek government's claims that the firms had been engaged in illicit religious activity, such as disseminating literature, should be verified.
As The Bug Pit noted, recent U.S. Congressional hearings on Central Asia primarily reflected the Obama Administration's focus on the war effort in Afghanistan -- which dovetails with the interests of the budget-slashing Republican-dominated Congress in not touching military aid.
Meanwhile, human rights concerns got rather a light touch in the testimony from Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake, Jr. at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on March 10.
In fairness, the topic was included, although it tended to be phrased in more low-impact terms as a dialogue about "democratic reform" -- and with egregious human rights violations referred to more diplomatically as "the many challenges" in this region. The U.S. has just completed the second round of Annual Bilateral Consultations (ABCs), instituted in 2009, with Uzbekistan and just had a mid-term review of the first round of such ABCs with Turkmenistan.
On Uzbekistan, Blake noted:
We continue to hold a dialogue to encourage the Uzbek authorities to address significant human rights concerns including ending forced child labor in the cotton harvest, opening up the media environment, curtailing abuses by security forces, and ending harassment of civil society and international NGOs.
The emphasis on the ongoing problem of forced child labor in Uzbekistan's lucrative cotton industry was indeed welcome; the U.S. Department of Labor has included Uzbek cotton in its list of products produced by forced labor as part of its obligations in monitoring such human rights violations.
Ezgulik (Mercy), a leading human rights organization in Uzbekistan, is facing criminal prosecution in a libel case for which the group has already been tried in civil court, the independent Uzbek online news service uznews.net reported. The case stems from a statement Ezgulik made in 2007 regarding popular singer Dilnura Kadyrjanova after her death.
Ezgulik is specifically charged with a statement on behalf of the parents of Kadyrjanova, who sought custody of the singer's children. The children's governess, Rene Metmuradova was given guardianship over the children after their mother's death, and it is she who filed the libel suit against Ezgulik.
Kadyrjanova, 31, an award-winning performer who had once met President Karimov, was found dead hanging from the handle of a wardrobe in her Tashkent apartment on September 12, 2007. Her death was ruled a suicide by police. Kadyrjanova, mother of three, allegedly had a lover, Jamshid Matlyubov, said to be the father of her son. Matlyubov is head of Tashkent's Yakkasaray District Police Department, and the brother of Bahodyr Matlyubov, Uzbekistan's Interior Minister. Human rights groups fear that these powerful officials have kept the case alive in retaliation against those who defended the interests of the singer's family.
In December 2010, police raided Egzulik's office and confiscated equipment in payment for fines totaling the equivalent of $140. While it seemed the matter was settled, in late February, police informed Ezgulik that a criminal case involving the same statement has now been opened under Article 139 (libel) and Article 140 (insult) of the Uzbek Criminal Code. These statutes provide punishment for up to three years in prison or a fine of between $4,200-$12,600, based on 200-600 times the minimum monthly wage.
In a one-hour meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador John E. Herbst, who was then presenting his credentials, Karimov claimed Moscow was trying to bring Tashkent "back into the fold". He said the Russian media exaggerated the danger of a Taliban victory, claiming the Taliban were "supposedly massing forces on the other side of the border from Termez and acquiring boats to infiltrate across the Amu Darya". Karimov said this was done deliberately "to sow panic among Uzbekistan's people.
According to the cable, Karimov said he believed Russian threats of air strikes on terrorist bases in Afghanistan made in May 1999 were designed to set the Taliban against Uzbekistan -- and manipulate Tashkent into cooperating more with Russian-dominated security arrangements for the region. Yet he said Tashkent wanted to "avoid needlessly provoking conflict with the Taliban" and supported a settlement with "an inclusive government encompassing many different political forces.
In this 2000 meeting, Karimov said the U.S. and Uzbekistan had a lot in common, including on issues in the Middle East, and referenced a meeting with Israeli political leader Natan Sharansky. Karimov said he believed that Russia had "no resources to offer and therefore could not contribute to Middle East peace"
Central Asia fans have waited several years for the release of a documentary about Igor Savitsky, whom the New York Times calls “an obsessive collector credited with saving tens of thousands of avant-garde artworks from Soviet authorities who forced artists toward Socialist Realism in the 1930s," by housing his collection out of Moscow’s sight in the Uzbek desert. His successors – he died in 1984 – have maintained his museum with some private support since independence in 1991.
The “Desert of Forbidden Art” is scheduled to open to general audiences in New York this week.
But art is a closely monitored affair in Uzbekistan. In a cruel irony, Uzbek authorities have followed in their paranoid predecessor’s path, apparently reacting against the film, The Times reports.
[L]ate last year Uzbek officials abruptly gave the Nukus Museum 48 hours to evacuate one of its two exhibition buildings, so staff members ended up stacking hundreds of fragile canvases and paper works on the floor of the other space. The building has since stood empty, its fate unknown, and more than 2,000 works are no longer on view at the museum, more formally known as the Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art. The museum’s director, Marinika M. Babanazarova, who has fiercely guarded the collection for 27 years, was not permitted to travel to the United States for a trip that was to include a screening of the documentary at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.