Last month, we asked if USAID's new health outreach program in Uzbekistan might wind up endangering any Uzbeks who agreed to work with it. That's because Maxim Popov, a psychologist and HIV/AIDS campaigner in Tashkent who worked with international agencies, wound up sentenced to 7 years in jail on charges of "corrupting minors" for distributing booklets about safe sex. He was also charged with embezzlement of foreign donor funds, a charge the foreign agencies themselves didn't make,which seems to have been trumped up by the authorities. We noted that USAID (the U.S. government's Agency for International Development) and various other agencies that had given grants and publications to distribute to Popov seemed to disappear when it came time to defend him.
Unfortunately, today international organizations don't give protective help to their grant recipients. It is hard to do AIDS/HIV advocacy work in Uzbekistan, but this isn't a problem for just health NGOs.
All public organizations and NGOs are experiencing difficulties, because without some approval from a [government] commission they can't get a grant. Most of the international organizations' accreditations are ending and they are not getting new ones.
A trial of 25 Muslim believers accused of membership in a banned religious group in Uzbekistan has ended after nearly three months with severe sentences for the members, the independent Uzbek news service ferghana.ru reports, citing the Uzbek opposition website Yangi Dunyo.
Unlike other cases of this nature in recent years, which have been closed to press and human rights groups, this trial in the Andijan regional court was open, relatives were admitted, and a well-known Andijan human rights activist, Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov was able to monitor it. Each defendant had a lawyer, some had even hired attorneys from Tashkent, and unlike other trials, the attorneys were more adversarial, and able to get the trial postponed several times when witnesses failed to appear. Even some local journalists were allowed to cover the proceedings.
Nine of the men were held in pre-trial detention, and 16 were released before trial, reports Zaynabitdinov. The proceedings began in early September and concluded in November. None of the defendants pleaded guilty, and all of them appeared relaxed, and vigorously defended themselves -- a factor that prompted observers to conclude that they had not been mistreated in detention.
While these circumstances seemed to indicate unsual conditions by contrast with most hasty, closed trials of religious and political activists in Uzbekistan, the outcome was just as grim: 19 of the members were sentenced to prison terms of 3-9 years and six from 2-6 years.
All the defendants are members of what is described as an orthodox Islam organization called Shokhidiylar, which recognizes the Prophet Mohammed but does not acknowledge Hadith, the collection of narrations about Mohammed's words and deeds, and based their spiritual practice only on the Koran.
Last week, Harry Eustace Jr., the head of FMN Logistics, got in touch with me to "set the record straight" about claims that his company was closely tied to Zeromax, which is in turn thought to be closely connected to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov. Eustace said his company had only the slimmest connection to Zeromax. But after the post was published, someone with access to some of Eustace's emails got in touch, claiming that Eustace was not telling the entire truth about FMN's relationship with Zeromax.
But before we get into the gory details of that, it may be a good idea to step back a bit and think again about why we care about this. The Northern Distribution Network, of which FMN Logistics is a key operator, has the potential to put the U.S. military in business with a variety of shady entities in Uzbekistan. It's hard to get solid information about Uzbekistan, but there are good reasons to believe that much business in the country, including the transportation business, is controlled by government officials who line their pockets with the revenues. This is part of the apparatus of repression in Uzbekistan, and it would be unsavory for the U.S. military to be involved in it.
FMN Logistics has been the focus of people looking into this question because it at one point openly advertised its connections to Zeromax, by writing in early sales presentations that “FMN Logistics is the U.S. small business contracting arm of Zeromax.” Eustace last week told me that the only connection FMN had with Zeromax was an agreement with a subsidiary to use its rail code. The emails I got suggest more extensive cooperation.
One email from June, 2009, refers to a meeting with Harry Eustace Sr. (the head of the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce and a co-owner of FMN Logistics) and Miradil Djalalov, the managing director of Zeromax:
He hasn’t presented any proof yet, but Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun says his office’s investigation has concluded that local Uzbeks began ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan this summer to carve off a piece of the country and join neighboring Uzbekistan. They then intended to overthrow strongman Islam Karimov, he said in comments carried by AKIpress.
Akun added that the Uzbeks started the fight but Kyrgyz then “finished it very harshly and more roughly.”
“The aim of the provocateurs was to create an autonomous region and make Uzbek its official language. They wanted to make Osh and Jalal-Abad regions an autonomous region of Uzbekistan. They had links with Uzbek citizens, rich Uzbek people who speak out against Karimov. And they wanted to overthrow Karimov and elect their person instead of him and rule all of Uzbekistan with Osh and Jalal-Abad regions."
Uzbek nationalist aspirations were one of the earliest explanations for June’s violence cited by official sources. However, convincing publicly available evidence has been scant.
The Guardian has a stash of cables up and an article summarizing -- not surprisingly -- the antics of President Islam Karimov's notorious daughter Gulnara Karimova -- and interestingly -- just how much static U.S. leaders get from President Karimov when they try to support human rights in Uzbekistan.
The cable writer adds for emphasis: "We have no polling data to support that statement, but we stand by it."
Journalists have often reported rumors of Karimova's extensive business dealings with corporations close to the state, particularly Zeromax, the conglomerate now seized by the government after going bankrupt. This January 28, 2005 cable comes closer to any other known source to making the connection:
According to various reports from industry insiders, Gulnora Karimova, the President's daughter, is interested in taking over a new cellular company with U.S. investment, as well as Uzbektelekom, the monopoly state- owned telecommunications company. She also reportedly has agreed with local mafia boss, XXXXXXXXXXXX, to take over his share of ZeromaxXXXXXXXXXXXX. In an ironic twist, if this comes to pass, it would leave Gulnora in control of Coca-Cola - her ex-husband's former company.
"ZeromaxXXXXXXXXXXXX" is likely a reference to a subsidiary -- these are now being transferred or sold off.
Of all the companies involved in the Northern Distribution Network, the one that's gotten the worst publicity -- including from this blog -- has been FMN Logistics. That's because the company, although owned by a Delaware-based LLC, has been linked to Zeromax, the holding company thought to have been controlled by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the president Islam Karimov.
But FMN's CEO, Harry Eustace, Jr., says that's not true, and that FMN has only the slightest connection with Zeromax. He got in touch with me in an effort, he said, "to set the record straight" in an on-the-record interview.
FMN was not always shy about its connections with Zeromax. In early sales presentations (pdf), the company wrote -- in bold, red, underlined letters -- “FMN Logistics is the U.S. small business contracting arm of Zeromax.” The perception that Zeromax pulls the strings with FMN is so pervasive that the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, when they emailed me a list of NDN vendors, included FMN with a parenthetical note -- "former Zeromax subsidiary." And Eustace says that he used to work for Zeromax, until 2006.
A member of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee who had taken part in organizing a parallel civil society conference asked Clinton a question about the U.S. "reengagement" on Uzbekistan and the deteriorating human rights situation there. He mentioned the cases of 14 human rights defenders in prison and asked whether Clinton would raise their plight in Uzbekistan, and also raise the cases of political prisoners in Turkmenistan. She replied:
Two cables published by Wikileaks reveal how the U.S. may be shopping around for regional businesses that could possibly assist in providing supplies to troops in Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) -- and a surprising Chinese offer to consider helping the NDN and cooperate with the U.S. to develop Turkmenistan's considerable gas deposits.
On the Wikileaks site under "Ashgabat", another new cable was published yesterday describing a source, referred to only as "Poloff," evidently a U.S. official, who reported his visit to two Turkmen factories. From this we learn what has hitherto apparently been a state secret: "Licorice root grows wild on the banks of the Amu Darya River." A press to extract the plant's juice built in 1906 by a U.S. company is still in operation but has been modernized by the Chinese.
Another plant that makes machine parts still has Soviet-era machinery and is evidently little in use currently, but may make a promising investment for a foreigner, says the cable writer. Most importantly, the Turkmen factory director proposes to build trailers for offices and housing in neighboring Afghanistan. "We'll make whatever you need," is the sub-title of that section of the cable.
The licorice cable or "A Tale of Two Factories" as it is formally titled shows that the U.S. is actively trying to figure out how to help Turkmenistan's industry, with its aging Soviet infrastructure, upgrade to compete on the world market. This likely dovetails with U.S. plans for the NDN. U.S. officials have held a number of meetings in Tashkent with Central Asian business people, usually close to their governments, touting the profits to be made from the NDN -- and the Turkmen factory director knew exactly the pitch to make.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Uzbekistan today as part of her short Central Asian tour, and her actions there will be watched probably more closely than anywhere else on her trip. The U.S. is walking a tightrope in Uzbekistan, relying on the country heavily for its role as a transport hub for military cargo to Afghanistan but wary of embracing a government with one of the worst human rights records on the planet.
Human Rights Watch, in a statement calling on Clinton to make human rights a prominent part of the agenda in Tashkent, suggests that government officials are personally profiting from traffic on the Northern Distribution Network, and that the NDN is causing the U.S. to send a mixed message in Uzbekistan:
Although the US maintains a congressionally-mandated visa ban against Uzbek officials linked to serious human rights abuses, it uses routes through Uzbekistan as part of the Northern Distribution Network to supply forces in Afghanistan. US military contracts with Uzbeks as part of this supply chain are potentially as lucrative for persons close to the Uzbek government as direct US aid would be. Despite the State Department's re-designation of Uzbekistan in January 2009 as a "Country of Particular Concern" for systematic violations of religious freedom, the US government retains a waiver on the sanctions outlined in the designation, raising serious concerns that the US is sending a mixed message on the importance of human rights improvements in Uzbekistan.
It’s confirmed: Uzbek President Islam Karimov will not attend the much trumpeted OSCE summit in the Kazakh capital on December 1 - 2. Instead, Karimov will send his foreign minister, Vladimir Norov.
Observers link Karimov’s absence in Astana to rifts with his Central Asian neighbors. Instead of engaging to solve cross border problems – such as mounting disputes over water resources – the Uzbek leader is offering his archrivals from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan an opportunity to put forward their views and win the international community’s sympathy, Uzbekistan-watchers say.
Ignoring the international meeting in Kazakhstan and missing a chance to catch up with world leaders is strange behavior, they say, especially when even the president of “neutral” Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – no dependable Karimov ally – has decided to make the Astana pilgrimage.