18 June 2005

The UN, the US, the UK - and Uzbekistan

By Rupert Read

Uzbekistan is on the boil. Its President blames Islamic extremists. This easy allegation of 'terrorism' goes down well with Western governments. It also comforts Moscow, as Putin fears Islamic militants in Chechnya and elsewhere.

But Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan since before his country declared independence from Russia in 1991, is himself an extremist. Political opponents have been gaoled or assassinated; widespread nepotism, corruption, and medieval torture are sponsored under his rule. Karimov is in fact a state-terrorist, continuing the very worse of the excesses of Soviet-style rule.

Uzbekistan held presidential elections in December 1991, at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Karimov, the then president, was re-elected by an overwhelming majority of the vote. Because, as in former days, most political groups were simply not allowed even to field candidates!

Ever since, Karimov has bolstered his authoritarian rule. His government crushes political debate, by banning all genuine opposition parties. His puppet parliament has amended the constitution, so that (like Mugabe) he can be re-elected again and again. Any opposition now is fragmented and frustrated. Karimov claims that he did not order troops to fire when peaceful anti-government demonstrators bravely took to the streets in Andijan, last month. But the evidence already, despite very strict government censorship, is that over 500 people died that day, mercilessly cut down by Karimov's government troops.

Karimov is an ill-concealed tyrant. He has looked to the Mongols for even more brutal methods of oppression. His government sanctions the cauldron, which boiled alive two of his critics in 2002. Uzbekistan is holding at least 6,000 political prisoners, who are routinely tortured. Independent economic activities, branded extremist Islamic businesses, have been eliminated. Religious practice is severely restricted. There is no free press; even the internet is censored. On Boxing Day, while the world was mesmerised by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Karimov held 'elections', which again returned his party to overwhelming power.

Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, fell out with the Foreign Office for its turning a blind eye to the Karimov regime. When Mr Murray visited Norwich a few months ago (he hails from north Norfolk), he argued that Britain was "selling its soul" by giving credence to garbage intelligence gathered by such barbaric methods. I have been fortunate enough to get to know Craig Murray personally over this last year, and I strongly recommend readers to find out more this honest man and his astonishing revelations concerning Uzbekistan and Britain: a good place to start is www.craigmurray.co.uk/weblog.html.

For the terrible truth is that our government is complicit in the Andijan massacre. How? Because the British army runs a training programme for the Uzbeki army. As revealed in Private Eye on June 10: even after hundreds of peaceful demonstrators had been murdered by that army, UK-Uzbeki military cooperation was not suspended. The MoD programme of training for Uzbek officers covers "the full spectrum of operations", including "counter-insurgency" and "peace enforcement" (sic). In other words: our taxpayers' money has financed the training of an army that has recently massacred several hundreds of its own citizens in cold blood - and yet our government has not taken action to break off support for this army!

The first sentence of the United Nations Charter affirms faith in fundamental human rights, in dignity and worth of the human person. The US and UK governments now say that they invaded Iraq so that its people could be freed from oppression, and given their human rights. Yet, in Uzbekistan, they support a government that is killing its people more openly than Saddam Hussein did, in the last years of his reign, before Bush and Blair toppled him. Is it possible that the difference between the two cases is this: Karimov is a friend to Bush and Blair, whereas Saddam openly defied them?

Perhaps it is time for the West to turn to peaceful methods of conflict-resolution, and so help to strengthen peacebuilding in the world of the 21st century. If the US and the UK worked to strengthen the UN, and if they pressured their friends such as Karimov to stop being butchers, then perhaps countries like Uzbekistan would start to know happier times, and perhaps the 21st century would be a period that we could look forward to living in - rather than a time to be ashamed of our own government.

My heartfelt thanks to David Roberts of Norwich and District United Nations Association for assistance with the writing and research on this article.