Pressure Uzbekistan on rights

By Mark Brzezinski in The Boston Globe

ACTUAL FIGURES on last month’s loss of life from Uzbekistan’s crushing of an antigovernment demonstration remain cloudy. The government claims 169 people were killed, including 32 troops. Opposition figures claim over 700 dead, mostly innocent protesters. Following the events in Andijon, the United States should send a clear signal that even close allies in the war on terror must adhere to human rights standards. The blatant indifference to human rights, in the name of security, undermines our strategic objectives.

For the Bush administration, Uzbekistan presents a dilemma. It remains an important ally in our efforts to consolidate peace and stability in post-Taliban Afghanistan. After 9/11, Uzbekistan granted US forces the use of a key air base near the border of Afghanistan. Even today, the US military uses bases in Uzbekistan to stage missions into remote areas of western Afghanistan. Since 9/11, to bolster regional security, the United States has given Uzbekistan more than $500 million for border control and other measures. That the United States and Uzbekistan would have a much closer relationship was clear a few months after 9/11 when President Bush welcomed Uzbek President Islam Karimov to the White House.

While President Bush has made democratization and human rights the core of his second term’s foreign policy doctrine, Uzbekistan’s human rights record has not improved and may be getting worse. State Department reports have described how police repeatedly torture prisoners. The latest State Department report, issued in February, said, ”Torture was common in prisons, pretrial facilities, and local police and security service precincts.” The State Department noted that in 2003 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture ”concluded that torture or similar ill-treatment was systematic.”

The way the United States has reacted to Uzbek government human rights abuses has sent mixed messages. In early 2004, following a string of suicide bombings in Tashkent that killed 47 people, the Uzbek government cracked down on people on religious grounds. Three months later, the State Department said it would cut $18 million in military and economic aid to Uzbekistan because of its failure to improve its human rights record.

But the next month, Pentagon officials announced an additional $21 million to help Uzbekistan in its campaign to remove its stockpile of biological weapons. A Pentagon official on a visit to Tashkent in August of 2004 reportedly noted concern about Uzbekistan’s human rights record but said: ”In my view, we shouldn’t let any single issue drive a relationship with any single country. It doesn’t seem to be good policy to me.”

It has been reported that the United States has sent terror suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation, even as Uzbekistan’s treatment of its own prisoners continues to earn it international condemnation. The US government’s program of ”rendition,” under which the Central Intelligence Agency transfers terror suspects to foreign countries to be held and interrogated, is said to have resulted in possibly dozens of terror suspects being sent by the United States to Uzbekistan. The message received by the Uzbek regime is that as long as effective intelligence collaboration with the CIA is maintained, other priorities in the United States-Uzbekistan relationship, including improvements in human rights, can be ignored.

Not all Western officials have tolerated this unfortunate arrangement. In July 2004, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, resigned after confidentially and then publicly urging colleagues in the British Foreign Office to stop using intelligence gleaned from terror suspects because it had been elicited through torture and other coercive means. Murray reportedly said his superiors in London told him that intelligence gleaned in Uzbekistan could still be used by British officials, even if it was elicited by torture, as long as the mistreatment was not at the hands of British interrogators.

To send a clear signal to Uzbek authorities that the United States is serious about human rights, the CIA’s rendition program with Uzbekistan must end. To be sure, Uzbekistan is in a position to offer some help in tackling critical security threats, especially in remote parts of Afghanistan. But seeking Karimov’s support on these issues — and it is in Uzbekistan’s own interest to do so — does not mean the Bush administration should remain quiet about negative trends in human rights.

The Uzbek government will continue to claim that their actions in Andijon were aimed solely at terrorist extremists and not at the political opposition, and as such are part and parcel of the global fight against terrorism.

And this is where the United States must convey a clear message to both Uzbekistan and other international partners with poor human rights records: ”Join us in the war on terror; don’t exploit the war on terror to crush political opposition and activists pressing for social change.”

Mark Brzezinski, an attorney, served as director for Russia/Eurasia on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration.