You could call it a stealth North Korea: a country in the same league of repression and isolation as the Hermit Kingdom, but with far less attention paid to its crimes.
The country is Uzbekistan, one of the Central Asian nations that emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It has brought some unique touches to the conduct of a dictatorship. When political prisoners have served their full terms, they often have their sentences extended for violations such as improperly peeling carrots in the prison kitchen or failing to sweep their cells correctly.
At harvest time, millions of students, teachers and other workers are temporarily enslaved to pick cotton to the profit of the regime.
It has been known to boil its prisoners alive.
But in most ways, it is a classic, hard-core police state, among the worst in the world.
Like Zimbabwe, it has a president who will not go away: Islam Karimov, who assumed power as Communist Party boss in 1989. After a quarter-century, Karimov, 76, appears as ensconced as ever, though Uzbekistan’s GDP per capita of $3,800 puts it 171st in the world.
Like China, it had its Tiananmen Square massacre: the shooting of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan in 2005, after which the government ramped up its repression nationwide.
And like North Korea, it confines in brutal conditions thousands of political prisoners.
How many thousands? Probably not the 80,000 to 120,000 who populate North Korea’s gulag. Human rights groups have offered estimates of 10,000 or 12,000.
But, as Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report, no one really knows, because, like North Korea, “Uzbekistan has become virtually closed to independent scrutiny.” Foreign correspondents and human rights monitors generally are not granted visas. No U.N. human rights expert has been allowed in since 2002.
Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is permitted almost everywhere because it never publicly embarrasses a country, had to pull out of Uzbekistan last year because of interference in its attempted prison visits.
Drawing the curtains has helped Uzbekistan avoid scrutiny. But the nation has stayed below the radar for another reason, too: The United States and other Western nations have been reluctant to confront Karimov and his regime. They have needed to ship military supplies through Uzbekistan to reach Afghanistan. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly hostile, the West has competed with him for the favor of neighboring nations.
Thus the tenor of this White House summary of a telephone call between President Obama and Karimov in 2011, unimaginable if Kim Jong Un had been on the other end of the line: “President Obama congratulated President Karimov on Uzbekistan’s 20 years of independence, and the two leaders pledged to continue working to build broad cooperation between our two countries. The President and President Karimov discussed their shared desire to develop a multi-dimensional relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan, including by strengthening the contacts between American and Uzbek civil societies and private sector.”
Never mind that Karimov has virtually eradicated Uzbekistan’s “civil sector.”
It’s hard to read of such a phone call without thinking of, say, Muhammad Bekjanov, 60, possibly the world’s longest-imprisoned journalist. Uzbek security agents kidnapped Bekjanov in 1999 in Ukraine, where he was living in exile. He has been beaten, shocked, subjected to temporary suffocation (the “bag of death”) and tortured in other ways. He has contracted tuberculosis, and beatings have cost him most of his teeth and much of his hearing. When his term was set to expire in 2012, he was sentenced to another five years for unspecified “violations of prison rules.”
Bekjanov’s crime was to have served as editor of an opposition party newspaper.
“There may be legitimate national security concerns that the U.S. needs to engage on,” Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me. “That doesn’t mean you have to shove everything else under the rug.”
There are some encouraging signs that Congress, at least, may be lifting a corner of that rug. In October the congressional Helsinki Commission, which is chaired by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), held a briefing on political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Last week eight senators, including Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), sent Karimov a letter urging the release of five prisoners, including Bekjanov.
These are small steps, but they shine some light on Uzbekistan’s crimes. Karimov cares about his reputation, his access to Western weaponry and his officials’ freedom to travel to Europe and the United States. If Obama also would take some small steps, it might make a big difference to the inmates of Uzbekistan’s invisible gulag.