Why is the Obama administration sanctioning one post-Soviet dictator with an atrocious human rights record and not another?
Barack Obama has signed a new bill banning some top Belarusian officials from visiting the United States -- and requiring Washington to monitor restrictions on press freedom and human rights abuses in Belarus -- because President Alexandr Lukashenko wantonly jails political opponents and journalists.
Those are hallmarks of Uzbekistan strongman Islam Karimov’s regime, where journalists are regularly imprisoned and critics tortured. Says the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ): “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.” But instead of censure, Karimov “has received stunningly cordial treatment from the Obama administration,” including, in the past few months, a friendly phone call from the president and a visit from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From CPJ:
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."
"Speaking Cotton," a film by Stefanie Trambow and Erik Malchow, portrays the ongoing exploitation of children in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, with interviews of children as young as 11. The repeated scenes of large groups of children with their teachers, hunched over plucking cotton bolls for months, let us know this isn't about family farming, but a state-sanctioned program.
NGOs such as the Uzbek-German Forum For Human Rights and the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan published numerous reports last fall exposing the persistent practice of removing children from school and forcing them to work long hours harvesting cotton.
Yet UNICEF has had a hard time publicly validating and condemning the practice, the most widespread form of child exploitation in Uzbekistan. The subject isn't mentioned on UNICEF's website for Uzbekistan, and you have to dig to the bottom of the last page of a thrice-yearly newsletter not available on the site to find a single paragraph on forced child labor in Uzbekistan:
A police academy graduate died in jail under mysterious circumstances, Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek Service of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported, citing human rights activists.
Almardon Ruzikulov, 28, was detained on suspicion of stealing a cow. His relatives say that he died from torture while interrogators were trying to extract a confession from him. Interior Ministry officials maintain, however, that Ruzikulov hanged himself in his jail cell.
The human rights group Ezgulik (“Goodness”) reported that Ruzikulov, a resident of the village of Korakiya in the Chirakchin district of Kashkadarya region, died on November 20. He was a graduate of the Interior Ministry Academy of Uzbekistan.
According to Ezgulik, when police received a statement about the theft of the cow, they made a number of detentions and interrogations. Ruzikulov was among them, and was eventually charged with theft. His 82-year-old father continues to go the Interior Ministry, seeking information about his son’s death.
Anvar Holyorov, a district detective who investigated Ruzikulov’s case, told Radio Ozodlik that he committed suicide. He further noted that torture was prohibited and “contradicted his professional and human duty.” He added that if there were no wounds on the body, and no evidence of torture, then the accusation shouldn’t be made. He said officers found the body of Ruzikulov hanging in his cell, and that officers on duty would be accountable. “An investigator doesn’t have responsibility for this,” said Holyorov.
While Facebook penetration in Uzbekistan is only a tiny 0.38% of the country's population and 2.26% of Internet users, usage grew by more than 23,480 in the last 6 months to a total number of 105,920. A particular jump is visible just in the last month. (To keep it in perspective, this figure is higher than Chad but lower than Guinea.)
The state communications agency reports that 7.9 million of Uzbekistan's 28 million people have Internet access. One in five has mobile Internet access, with 500,000 registered in the last year.
Alexander Suchkov, editor-in-chief of the Infocom web magazine based in Tashkent told IWPR, "Numerous blogs have appeared… in which young people talk about modern Uzbekistan. I know these young enthusiasts, and they obviously want to change things."
In an unusual but indirect acknowledgement of responsibility for torture of prisoners, Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry has admitted that police officers under its supervision beat and raped two women in pre-trial detention, Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, citing Uzbek human rights groups.
Rayhon Soatova, an Uzbek woman arrested in 2009 along with her two sisters and sentenced in 2010 to seven years for assault in a domestic altercation, was raped by as many as a dozen police officers, human rights defenders reported at the time. Later, Soatova gave birth prematurely to a daughter in prison and continued to claim police were responsible.
While an Uzbek prosecutor finally opened an investigation, officials first suspected Rayhon’s male acquaintances and relatives, collecting DNA samples from them and only later law-enforcers. Abdusumat Soatov, Rayhon’s brother, continued to insist on a probe. Ultimately, police said the DNA analysis was “inconclusive” for a trial and charges against 12 policemen were dropped. Yet, say human rights activists, authorities tacitly admitted they were at fault. Rayhon was moved from a labor colony where conditions are stricter, to a work settlement for the remainder of her sentence.
A second case involved Muhayyo Odilova of Kokand, whose father was the former head of the Interior Ministry of Ferghana region, who was arrested on fraud charges. A corrections official first admitted that Odilova was raped by a police officer while in custody. Then during a parliamentary hearing in November, Deputy Interior Minister Abdukarim Shodiev acknowledged that Odilova was raped in 2006 by a police officer, the Human Rights Alliance reported, citing unnamed sources. The hearing was evidently not covered by the state media or confirmed by independent press.
Where is war most likely to break out in 2012? Between Georgia and Russia? Armenia and Azerbaijan? Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (or Tajikistan and itself)? News is thin this week between (non-Orthodox) Christmas and New Year's, so analysts and pundits are coming out with their predictions for 2012, and a lot of them touch on the possibility for conflict in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The International Crisis Group's Louise Arbour, writing in Foreign Policy, lists Central Asia as one of "Next Year's Wars":
Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
She also mentions the U.S.'s tight relationship with Uzbekistan (though it's not clear how that would spark a war next year) and the regional divide in Kyrgyzstan.
And on the Caspian Intelligence blog, Alex Jackson is making guarded predictions for 2012 for the Caucasus. In Georgia, he says there is a greater risk of violence as next year's elections approach:
A road in far western Kazakhstan, an underappreciated part of the Northern Distribution Network
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a report (pdf) last week on relations with Central Asia and the war in Afghanistan. And while there is little new in there for close watchers of the region, it does have some new numbers about the traffic through the Northern Distribution Network that suggest that Uzbekistan is less important than it was a year ago:
Since 2009, the United States has steadily increased traffic on the NDN, a major logistical accomplishment that has resulted in a series of commercial air and ground routes that supply NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Close to 75 percent of ground sustainment cargo is now shipped via the NDN. According to U.S. Transportation Command, an estimated 40 percent of all cargo transits the NDN, 31 percent is shipped by air, and the remaining 29 percent goes through Pakistan.
The NDN comprises three principal land routes: one stretching from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, through Baku, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea, and into Central Asia; one from the Latvian port of Riga through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan; and a final route that originates in Latvia and travels through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and passes into Afghanistan via Tajikistan. An estimated 70 percent of cargo transiting the NDN enters at Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate.
(This was written before Pakistan cut off U.S. and NATO traffic.) Last November, a Pentagon official testified that 98 percent of NDN traffic went through Uzbekistan. And that figure has been frequently cited to show how Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, effectively had the U.S. over a barrel: we can't cross him or he'd cut off transit, and then we would be really out of luck.
A local Uzbek government official has apparently ordered the closure of stores displaying and selling lingerie, offended by the view -- and thinking of the children.
The Kremlin-sponsored web site and television channel Russia Today (rt.com) writes yesterday:
Women in the Uzbek Capital Tashkent will have to buy their underwear ‘under the counter’ from now on. Local media say Otabek Sadykov took a walk through a local market and was shocked by the sight of bras and panties on sale. He immediately issued an order putting a stop to the display of women’s lingerie in shops.
The story may have come from semi-official uzmetronom.com, a Russian-language Tashkent-based site which often leaks from government sources and covers various scandals of the day.
According to information from our readers, in Sergeli district of Tashkent, all shops selling underwear are closed, and it has disappeared from the shelves of specialized departments in other stores. Now underwear is being sold underground. According to merchants who were forced into the underground, the ban on the sale of underwear in the district was imposed by the new khokim (the head of the local administration).
The article goes on to speculate sarcastically that next, recommendations from the commission on spirituality and education will be issued to regulate even the design of underwear and when, where, and how it can be worn -- and purchased only with a husband or wife or close relative present.
Family in Samarkand cooks outside in 2009, as gas pressure always drops at the first cold weather.
Residents of Uzbekistan's Andijan region have been freezing as the temperature drops and authorities have cut off gas service, the independent news site uznews.net reports.
Gas pressure has plummeted so drastically that even special pumps designed to extract better flows in the winter aren't working.
Residents have told uznews.net that since Monday, not only has gas service for consumers been cut off, factories are also experiencing a shortfall. Electricity to residences has also been turned off periodically for increasingly longer times.
Local authorities are blaming the energy shut-down on "technical problems due to the fall of air temperature," says uznews.net
The thermometer is not expected to rise above freezing until this weekend, local forecasters say.
Officials in the Ferghana region warned consumers three months ago to expect problems with gas supplies, suggesting they stock up on firewood. Some loads of coal were also delivered as an alternative.
Earlier this fall, some homes and factories found their gas was shut off in Tashkent and other regions for alleged non-payment.
Members of the European Parliament voted this morning 603-8 to send the textile protocol to the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the European Union and Uzbekistan back to the European Commission.
In the text of the resolution, the European parliamentarians "[s]trongly condemn the use of forced child labour in Uzbekistan" and "[u]rge the Uzbek President Islam Karimov to allow an ILO monitoring mission into the country to address the issue of forced child labour practice."
The MEPs further specify support for the ILO's request for "a high-level tripartite observer mission that would have full freedom of movement and timely access to all locations and relevant parties, including in the cotton fields, in order to assess the implementation of the ILO Convention."
Finally, evidently mindful of how such missions to closed societies run by authoritarian regimes can be manipulated and sidetracked, the parliamentarians spell out further conditions:
Concludes that Parliament will only consider the consent if the ILO observers, have been granted access by the Uzbek authorities to undertake close and unhindered monitoring and have confirmed that concrete reforms have been implemented and yielded substantial results in such a way that the practice of forced labour and child labour is effectively in the process of being eradicated at national, viloyat and local level.