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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Closing Eyes to Uzbek Rights Record?

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- As Mirza Khalmohamedo, a short, thickset man in his 50s, stood outside the courthouse and talked of his son's torture, his relaxed manner was jarring. He could have been remarking on the day's pleasant weather, or on the schoolchildren walking past, and not recounting how police alternated beatings and salt rubdowns on his 27-year-old son, Khidhir.

"They tied him naked to a table and sodomized him with a bottle," he said, and finally offered a sign of emotional involvement: a barely perceptible shake of his bald head under its square Uzbek cap, which may have indicated disgust; an ever so slight I-can't-believe-it-either shrug.

Since March, Khidhir has been serving a 12-year sentence for association with a non-approved religious group; his father was at the courthouse again this week to follow the trial of Khidhir's older brother, who is facing the same charges.

Stories like these -- and there are thousands of them -- are being re-evaluated in light of a "qualitatively new relationship" between the United States and Uzbekistan, announced three weeks ago in Tashkent by Uzbek President Islam Karimov and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Uzbekistan has agreed to provide an air base from which U.S. forces could send planes into Afghanistan; the United States is promising as yet unspecified amounts of cash, and has agreed to defend Uzbekistan from fuzzily defined future foes.

Karimov ended that Oct. 5 press conference by pouncing enthusiastically on a startled USA Today reporter in cowboy boots, shaking his hand and praising America. U.S. officials have been equally complimentary, and over the weekend, the State Department handed Karimov another triumph: It released its annual report on international religious freedom, and failed to list Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia as "countries of particular concern."

All of those countries are described by the White House as allies in U.S. President George W. Bush's campaign against international terrorism. Had they been listed as states that deny their people religious freedoms, they could have faced U.S. diplomatic criticism or even economic sanctions under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

"Clearly, the administration doesn't want to offend key allies in the coalition through excessive truth-telling," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, in a press release. "By not designating Uzbekistan a 'country of particular concern,' the administration missed an easy opportunity to show that the war on terrorism cannot be a campaign against Islam."

The State Department recognizes that Turkmenistan has harassed its citizens for their religious beliefs, and that it is also the only post-Soviet state to actually confiscate and destroy mosques and churches. For good measure, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov last month also outlawed all opera, ballet and theater, noting that the "semi-nudity" of ballet offended the strong morals of his people.

As to Saudi Arabia, where Christians are forbidden to conduct any form of public worship, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher conceded last week that "there is essentially no religious freedom" there.

But perhaps most striking is the omission of Uzbekistan. The State Department report acknowledges that Uzbekistan has committed "abuses against many devout Muslims for their religious beliefs," including torturing them. International and local rights activists say there are already more than 7,000 "independent" Muslims in jail, none of whom stands accused of advocating or participating in any sort of violence.

Rights groups have documented the systematic and horrific tortures of such people, both pretrial and post-sentencing, and even harassment of their extended families -- a policy endorsed by President Karimov, who warned two years ago that "the fathers who have raised [perceived enemies of the state] will be brought to account together with their children."

Nor has it slackened since the Americans arrived. Not two weeks after Karimov and Rumsfeld announced their new honeymoon relationship, Uzbek police returned Ravshan Haidov's body to his family on Oct. 18. They explained that they'd arrested him the night before as a rogue Muslim, but he'd had "a heart attack."

Those who viewed the corpse of the 32-year-old father of two say the neck was broken, one leg was broken below the knee and there were bruises everywhere. Haidov's 25-year-old younger brother, police added, was still in custody, in a hospital.

Officially, this is all done in the name of battling Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. But rights groups say the policy of arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings and systematic torture has done more to manufacture terrorists than to bring them to heel.

The first known major terrorist act was a series of Tashkent car bombs in 1999 that killed 16 and wounded more than 100. But persecutions of thousands of non-violent Muslims goes back for years here, and often has gone hand-in-hand with persecutions of pro-democracy or anti-Karimov political movements.

It is in this context that Acacia Shields, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Tashkent, worries about the vague new security guarantees from Washington.

"President Bush said we'd make the distinction that [America is pursuing] a war on terrorism, not a war on Islam," says Shields. "But the Uzbek government has proven time and again it's not able to make that distinction.

"So now we have security guarantees. Are we talking about protecting [Uzbekistan] from the Taliban or the IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan]? If so, fine. But my fear is that the Uzbek government will turn to the United States and say: Help us in countering our 'internal threat.' And that means: Help us continue this horrific campaign against peaceful independent Muslims."

Eighty percent of Uzbekistan's 24 million people are Muslims, and many worship in state-approved mosques, where the government's Spiritual Board certifies imams and vets their sermons.

But citizens who have even the slightest association with non-approved peaceful Muslim organizations -- whether that is possession of a single leaflet from such a group, or passing association with relatives or friends who once attended the wrong mosque -- have been getting from 12 to 20 years in jail. Many report that in jail they are beaten if they even look like they might be praying.

Until now, one of the few brakes on this has been the U.S. State Department, which has quietly supported some Uzbek rights activists with money and computers, and has brought behind-the-scenes pressure on Tashkent to ease up.

American pressure has over the years been credited with freeing prominent human rights activists who say they were framed as extremists to silence them, and with persuading Tashkent in 2000 to let the International Committee of the Red Cross have access to prisoners in Uzbek jails.

Without Western pressure, rights activists say Uzbekistan will continue to churn out stories of broken lives like that of Kabul Makhamov, a 51-year-old professor who teaches automobile engineering, and another of the parents standing forlornly outside the Tashkent court house.

Makhamov says his 27-year-old son was arrested because "he went to the mosque." He says his son was held for 43 days without a lawyer, and confessed after security officers tore out his fingernails and inserted needles in their place. He says his son renounced that confession in court as the product of torture only to be given six years by a judge who replied, "as long as it is written, it is so."

Makhamov nevertheless believes that President Karimov would stop such abuses if he only knew of them.

"The president doesn't know," he said firmly.