None of us, even dictators, get to choose our families. In Tunisia, it was the absurdly lavish lifestyle of the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s son that helped fuel the resentment of the country’s youth. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s wife and two sons are even less popular than he is. Now, in Uzbekistan, it’s long serving President Islam Karimov who is probably scratching his head at the behavior of one of his own children. Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva can’t compete with Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s boys for corruption and graft, but she does offer something else: embarrassment.
Yesterday, a French court began to hear her case against the news Web site Rue89. Karimova-Tillyaeva is suing the small media outlet for an article it published last year that referred to her as a “dictator’s daughter.” Karimova-Tillyaeva, who serves as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to UNESCO, apparently didn’t take kindly to being described as an autocrat’s offspring, or to reading that her work at the U.N. body is a relatively transparent attempt to “whitewash her country’s image” before Western audiences. The article gets at the vast chasm between Uzbekistan’s public image and darker reality by looking at the issue of AIDS. The author explains that while another of Karimov’s daughters co-hosted a charity ball for AIDS awareness, the Uzbek government imprisoned an activist for distributing leaflets on HIV prevention.
None of Karimov’s children probably has much experience relying on a court system for much if anything. If someone wrote an article like the one that annoyed Karimova-Tillyaeva in Uzbekistan, the author would simply be arrested and the publication closed. So perhaps, in her anger, she didn’t entirely think through what it would mean to have to make her case against Rue89 in a French courtroom. Because now, over the course of the trial, this French defendant intends to prove that Uzbekistan’s Karimov is the dictator they say he is. Karimov’s daughter may have been motivated by a desire to protect her image or defend her father’s reputation, but in effect, he is now the one on trial.
It won’t be a hard argument to win. There are few human rights that the Uzbek government hasn’t violated. Karimov’s regime has been criticized for systematic torture, forced disappearances of opposition figures and the arbitrary arrest of dissidents. Reporters Without Borders recently named Uzbekistan as one of the “Predators of Press Freedom” for its harsh abuse and intimidation of journalists there. Two months ago, the regime expelled Human Rights Watch from the country. It had run afoul of the regime every since it reported on Karimov’s massacre of peaceful protestors in Andijan in May 2005. Hundreds died when Uzbek soldiers fired on them, although even now, six years later, it is not known precisely how many people lost their life. Rue89 intends to have a line of Uzbek activists and citizens march into court to describe in very personal terms why Karimov is nothing if not a dictator.
My guess is that this dictator’s daughter won’t be availing herself of the courts in France — or anywhere else — for some time to come.