The Guardian – US looks away as new ally tortures Islamists

The Guardian – US looks away as new ally tortures Islamists (by Nick Paton Walsh)

Abdulkhalil was arrested in the fields of Uzbekistan’s Ferghana valley in August last year. The 28-year-old farmer was sentenced to 16 years in prison for “trying to overthrow the constitutional structures”.

Last week his father saw him for the first time since that day on a stretcher in a prison hospital. His head was battered and his tongue was so swollen that he could only say that he had “been kept in water for a long time”.

Abdulkhalil was a victim of Uzbekistan’s security service, the SNB. His detention and torture were part of a crackdown on Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamist group.

Independent human rights groups estimate that there are more than 600 politically motivated arrests a year in Uzbekistan, and 6,500 political prisoners, some tortured to death. According to a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy, in August two prisoners were even boiled to death.

The US condemned this repression for many years. But since September 11 rewrote America’s strategic interests in central Asia, the government of President Islam Karimov has become Washington’s new best friend in the region.

The US is funding those it once condemned. Last year Washington gave Uzbekistan $500m (‘300m) in aid. The police and intelligence services – which the state department’s website says use “torture as a routine investigation technique” received $79m of this sum.

Mr Karimov was President Bush’s guest in Washington in March last year. They signed a “declaration” which gave Uzbekistan security guarantees and promised to strengthen “the material and technical base of [their] law enforcement agencies”.

The cooperation grows. On May 2 Nato said Uzbekistan may be used as a base for the alliance’s peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

Since the fall of the Taliban, US support for the Karimov government has changed from one guided by short-term necessity into a long-term commitment based on America’s strategic requirements.

Critics argue that the US has overlooked human rights abuses to foster a police state whose borders give the Pentagon vantage points into Afghanistan and the other neighbouring republics which are as rich in natural resources as they are in Islamist movements.

The geographical hub of the US-Uzbek alliance is 250 miles south of the capital, Tashkent. Outside the town of Karshi lies the Khanabad military base, the platform for America’s operations in Afghanistan.

The town of Khanabad has been closed for months by the Uzbek government. Locals say the restrictions are compensated for by the highly paid work the base brings.

Journalists are not allowed in to see its runway, logistical supply tents and troop lodgings, all set on roads named after New York avenues. One western source said: “[The Americans] expect to be here for over a decade.”

This will suit the Uzbek government, which welcomes America’s change in attitude as its own security forces continue to repress the population. Uzbeks need a permit to move between towns and an exit visa to leave the country. Attendance at a mosque seems to result in arrest.

In the city of Namangan, in the Ferghana valley, there are many accounts of the regime’s brutality. A fortnight ago, Ahatkhon was beaten by police and held down while members of the Uzbek security service stuffed “incriminating evidence” into his coat pocket. They called in two “witnesses” to watch them discover two leaflets supporting Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He was forced to inform on four friends, one of whom – an ex-boxer – is still in pain from his beating. Abdulkhalil and Ahatkhon prayed regularly. This seemed to have been enough to brand them as the Islamists the Karimov government fears.

The Ferghana valley has been a base for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which the US and the UK say has links with al-Qaida. But the group is thought to have been crippled by the operations in Afghanistan. Analysts dismiss US claims that the IMU is targeting American military assets in the neighbouring republic of Kyrgyzstan.

The fight against the IMU has been used to justify the repression of Islamists. But the Islamic order advocated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir fills a void left by devastating poverty and state brutality.

Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said: “The intense repression here combined with the inequality of wealth and absence of reform will create the Islamic fundamentalism that the regime is trying to quash.”

Another senior western official said: “People have less freedom here than under Brezhnev. The irony is that the US Republican party is supporting the remnants of Brezhnevism as part of their fight against Islamic extremism.”

The US is also funding some human rights groups in Uzbekistan. Last year it gave $26m towards democracy programmes. A state department spokesman said America’s policy was “reform through engagement” and that Uzbekistan had “taken some positive steps”, including “registering a human rights group and a new newspaper”.

Matilda Bogner of Human Rights Watch’s office in Tashkent said: “I would deny there has been any real progress.

“The steps taken are basically window dressing used to get the military funding through the US Congress’s ethical laws. Nothing has changed on the ground.”

Hakimjon Noredinov, 68, agreed. He became a human rights activist after a morgue attendant brought him his eldest son, Nozemjon. He had been left for dead by the security service but was still alive despite having his skull fractured. Nozemjon is now 33, but screamed all night since they split his skull open. He is now in an asylum, Mr Noredinov said. “People’s lives here are no better for US involvement,” he said.

“Because of the US help, Karimov is getting richer and stronger.”