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CENTRAL ASIA: Kyrgyzstan – Wakeup Call For EU, US

Kester Kenn Klomegah and Claudia Ciobanu

MOSCOW, Apr 26 2010 (IPS) - The popular revolt in Kyrgystan this month should “serve as a wakeup call to the European Union and the United States, prompting some serious rethinking of their policy priorities in Central Asia,” says a leading area expert.

“Ignoring people’s grievances and overlooking repression because of other, supposedly more important interests, doesn’t pay off,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, New York-based advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia with the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Whether geostrategic or other, such interests and the promotion of human rights and democracy are rarely, if ever, mutually exclusive goals, but can and should be pursued at the same time,’’ Goldston told IPS in an e-mail interview.

Recent events in Uzbekistan, the most populous nation in Central Asia with 28 million people, serve as a case in point.

In March this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a damning report on Uzbekistan, condemning the use of child labour, governmental persecution of human rights defenders and journalists, widespread repression of civil society, the persistent torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the lack of independence of the judiciary.

The UN Committee also criticised the “continued lack of accountability” for the 2005 massacre of mostly unarmed protestors in the city of Andijan. An estimated 750 civilians were killed in May 2005 in Andijan after security forces opened fire on a peaceful protest.

Visiting Uzbekistan this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged President Islam Karimov to pay more attention to human rights, albeit the U.N. chief’s comments were more restrained than the report of the U.N. Human Rights Committee. Karimov has been in power in Uzbekistan since 1989.

Yet, in spite of documented human rights abuses in the country, Western powers have recently softened their stance on Tashkent over geostrategic interests.

In October 2009, EU foreign ministers scrapped an arms embargo on Uzbekistan – the last remaining EU sanction against the country – citing “positive steps” undertaken by Tashkent over the past year.

Among the signs of progress quoted by the EU are the country’s participation in a “structured human rights dialogue” with the EU, ratification of international conventions prohibiting child labour, and the introduction of habeas corpus.

Human Rights Watch, however, claims that, “apart of isolated annual talks (on human rights) whose content and outcome remain obscure, none of the steps cited by the EU took place in the last year.”

Germany, which has a military base in Uzbekistan, was the main promoter of the elimination of the embargo. Furthermore, the rich oil and gas reserves of Central Asian countries are a potential further reason for the relaxation of the EU stance towards Uzbekistan.

The U.S. too has softened its stance on human rights abuses in the country since last year, when the Karimov government allowed Washington to use Uzbekistan as a transit route to Afghanistan and to operate from an air base in Navoi.

In 2005, the U.S. had to withdraw from the air base (Karshi Khanabad) it was using in Uzbekistan after criticising the Andijan massacre, hence its more careful stance this time around.

Meanwhile, news of human rights abuses from the country keep making their way into the Western media.

Late February, reports surfaced about the seven-year imprisonment of 28-year-old psychologist and AIDS activist Maxim Popov.

Popov was convicted late last year for “promoting homosexuality” and “corrupting minors” through his AIDS-prevention work. Homosexuality is illegal in Uzbekistan and punishable by three years of jail. The activist was further accused of fiscal impropriety.

Popov is the founder of Izis, an Uzbek AIDS-fighting organisation of young medical professionals and activists funded by UNICEF (the U.N. International Children’s Emergency Fund), the British department for international development and other international groups. He has also published a brochure on safe sex with funding from the Global AIDS Fund. Since Popov’s arrest, his NGO has been forced to shut down.

“The work of Maxim Popov did not harm the population of Uzbekistan, as he wrote from the point of view of contemporary medicine,” Surat Ikramov, chairman of Human Rights Defenders in Uzbekistan, told IPS. “The work of Popov does no harm to a Muslim society.”

“The court trial was conducted in a closed regime, therefore it is now much more difficult to prove whether the judgment was justified,” added Ikramov.

“The release of Popov can only be obtained through pressure by the main partners of Uzbekistan, namely the U.S. and the EU,” Nikolai Alekseyev, leader of Moscow Gay Pride, told IPS. “But the problem here is geopolitical, as the U.S. has a strategic military base in Uzbekistan,” said the activist who has been working on promoting Popov’s cause at EU level.

Yet, the chances for such international pressure remain slim. “The release of imprisoned human rights defenders was an explicit criterion the EU had set for lifting the sanctions,” Goldston told IPS. “The fact that the sanctions were scrapped in the absence of any progress in this area – indeed, not even just no progress but outright regression – speaks volumes about lack of international resolve in the face of persisting abuses perpetrated by the Uzbek government.”

“Key international actors, including the U.S. and the EU, have grown increasingly silent in the face of Uzbek government abuses, arguing in favour of what they term ‘quiet diplomacy’ instead of a more public, robust stance,” Goldston said.

“The effect of this weak policy has been to further embolden the Uzbek government in its abusive practices and to help perpetuate its aggressive quest for monopoly on any information about the state of human rights in the country,’’ she added.

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