Secretary of State John F. Kerry looks on while the Uzbek president makes an opening statement in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool Photo via Associated Press)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry sat down Sunday with the leader of Uzbekistan, an authoritarian nation that routinely persecutes government critics, and discussed the potential for cooperation on trade, security and the environment if it improves its human rights record.

Kerry and Uzbek President Islam Karimov met for two hours before Kerry joined separate talks with foreign ministers from the five nations in Central Asia. According to a summary ­provided by the State Department, human rights was among a host of issues he discussed with Karimov.

But when a Washington Post reporter called out a question about human rights at the conclusion of Kerry’s meeting with Karimov, an Uzbek official and an American wearing a “diplomatic security” pin each took her by an arm and firmly guided her from the room.

U.S. officials later said that the Uzbeks had banned the reporter from covering the opening statements at the six-nation meeting but then apparently relented and allowed the reporter to attend. A State Department official apologized for the diplomatic security officer’s role in escorting the reporter out the door.

Uzbekistan was Kerry’s second stop in a tour of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, where he is seeking to broaden and deepen relations. He is the first U.S. secretary to visit all five nations in one swoop and the first to visit Uzbekistan since Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2011. Sanctions imposed in 2004 over human rights abuses were waived by the White House that year in recognition of Uzbekistan’s supporting role in the war in Afghanistan. That allowed Washington to resume military sales to Uzbekistan, and sanctions have since been waived annually.

Washington Post correspondent Carol Morello is escorted out of the room where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, after she asked a question about the U.S. State Department's critique of the Uzbek human rights record. (Reuters)

Now, as then, Uzbekistan has a record of abusing its own citizens that the organization Human Rights Watch labels “atrocious.” The State Department’s own human rights report issued this year includes a long inventory of abuses, such as torture, the detention of hundreds — if not thousands — of political prisoners, endemic corruption and forced labor during the annual cotton harvest.

It cited one case in which the body of a detained opposition leader that was returned to his family showed signs of severe torture, and the authorities demanded an immediate, secret burial. Transparency International lists Uzbekistan as one of the 10 most corrupt nations in the world.

A senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said the secretary told Karimov privately that although the United States sees some signs of progress on human rights issues in Uzbekistan, particularly involving new laws prohibiting child labor, many areas remain troubling.

In his talks with Karimov, Kerry singled out human rights, labor practices and religious freedom as areas in which “more needs to be done,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules for briefing reporters. Karimov suggested that he would consider some changes, the official said.

In separate talks with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, Kerry brought up the names of several individuals whose fates are considered particularly worrisome, and he urged their release from prison, the official said.

In both meetings, Kerry said it will be difficult to obtain the degree of foreign investment Uzbekistan seeks if human rights abuses are not curtailed, according to the official.

In a sign that Kerry’s private lobbying may have had an effect, the protection of human rights was among 10 items agreed upon by all five Central Asian countries and the United States in a joint declaration of partnership and cooperation. They also agreed to develop democratic institutions and show respect for international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In public, Kerry was circumspect in his choice of language. Speaking to the news media before his meeting with Karimov, Kerry said he was there to discuss the “human dimension,” along with economic development, the environment and regional stability.

“We need to talk about the human dimension, the issues regarding individuals and their participation in society and in defining the future of the country and their opportunities with respect to education and other issues,” he said.

Kerry, often generous in his praise of the leaders he is about to meet, appeared careful not to praise Karimov. At 77, Karimov has been in power for a ­quarter-century and is serving his fifth term, including one before Uzbekistan became independent in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan’s constitution limits presidents to two terms.

The ancient heart of Samarkand, normally a bustling tourist center with beautiful tiled madrassas and mosques, was eerily empty all day during the ­six-nation summit, even for a rainy day. Government vehicles reportedly drove around Sunday morning broadcasting warnings to residents to stay inside, get their cars off the streets and not venture outside until the summit concluded.

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