For the Obama administration, the government of Uzbekistan has been a crucial if imperfect ally in Central Asia, providing NATO with access to supply routes into Afghanistan as well as authority to use its air bases.
Uzbekistan’s rights records, however, has been persistently troubling, activists say, and, according to a blistering new report, is getting worse, even as the Obama administration is weighing whether to ease restrictions on aid to the Tashkent government.
A 107-page report from Human Rights Watch, released Tuesday, cites first-hand evidence in concluding that the West’s policy of “engagement without strings” has “compounded Uzbekistan’s human rights crisis.”
The report documents what it describes as Uzbekistan’s chronic efforts to torture opponents, as well as its attempts to exert political control over independent lawyers. While President Islam Karimov’s government introduced habeas corpus in 2008, the implementation of the legal doctrine has largely been a sham, HRW said.
Pretrial detention is the rule, not the exception, and the government has resorted to torture practices including sexual humiliation, asphyxiation and starvation, researchers found.
“The Uzbek government has used the passage of habeas corpus and other reforms as public relations tools, touting the laws as signs of its ongoing ‘liberalization’ of the criminal justice system,” said the report. “But there is no evidence the Uzbek government is committed to implementing the laws that it has passed or to ending torture in practice.”
The report is titled “No One Left to Witness,” a reference to the fact that Uzbekistan has put stringent limits on the ability of rights officials to monitor conditions inside the country.
The U.S. partnership with Uzbekistan has long pitted the United States’ security interests against its interests in promoting reform and an abiding respect for rule of law in the country. With Pakistan’s recent decision to shut down border crossings into Afghanistan, the Uzbeks’ cooperation with the United States has become even more important to the war effort.
Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that, although the closure of the border does not make it impossible to get supplies to troops into Afghanistan, it does make it necessary to rely more on air transport and on the distribution network that runs through Uzbekistan, an alternative far costlier than the use of land routes through Pakistan.
In recent months, the Pentagon has sought to expand its relationship with Uzbekistan and has asked for a congressional waiver that would allow the provision of military aid to the Tashkent government, a move rights groups have opposed.
Obama administration officials have said they remain concerned about human rights violations in Uzbekistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised those concerns during a trip to the country in October, according to aides.
The State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report describes Uzbekistan as an “authoritarian state” where rights activists are “subject to physical attack, harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecution and detention.”
Read the rest of the HRW report here.