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October 08, 2001
The View from Tashkent

By Malika Kenjaboyeva


The View from Tashkent
By Malika Kenjaboyeva
citizen of Uzbekistan

My enemy's enemy should not necessarily be my friend. The US already made that mistake when it financed and supported fundamentalist guerrillas against the Soviet backed regime in Kabul.

Then, the excuse was the war on communism. Now, the war against terrorism has Washington embracing the one post-Soviet regime that moved firmly backwards. After the fall of the Soviet Union in August 1991 Uzbekistan's transition from a soviet communist republic was extraordinarily smooth. The once dominant Communist Party became the Democratic Party of Uzbekistan. The former Communist leaders, such as current president Islam Karimov changed their labels, emblems and slogans and continued to rule the country.

In 1992 after Uzbekistan became independent. Karimov, already president of the Soviet Republic decided to run for the presidency of the now independent state Instead of Soviet brotherhood, Karimov, the former Soviet apparatchik began to play on Uzbek nationalism, and to build support in the predominantly Moslem nation he began by extending religious freedom. He had a strong opponent - Muhhamed Solih, a prominent academic who was popular with the intelligentsia. Karimov let him run, but with no access to the media, and with total government control of the count.

Once Karimov was "elected," he accused Solih of anti-constitutional activities and sent him away into exile, banning his Birlik (Unity) Party. In 1995, he decided to extend his own term until last year, when he safely ran with no significant opposition.

In those few years of relative freedom, many clerics had organized religious groups, preached Islam and its laws in the mosques and even on television. However, this brought popularity to a few high ranking Muftis in the country as well and Karimov immediately sensed the threat of alternative power sources. He began intimidating the clerics and when that did not work, he began jailing them under various excuses.

Unlike Orwell's "Big Screen" that watched every person's movements, the Uzbek regime's technological backwardness forces it to use human monitors. Most of them are unofficial agents recruited by the SNB (the KGB's successor). They exist in every mahalla, the political units, each with leaders and political instructors. They lurk among students, farmers, workers, listening and reporting.

It was like the Stalin era when a denunciation for anti-Sovietism was the same as a guilty verdict. Now any opposition is rounded up with an accusation of Islamic fundamentalism, and Human Right Watch estimates that there are 7,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan. Of the thousands who have been detained, harassed, tortured, and imprisoned since the religious persecution intensified in 1999, only very few have been charged with specific violent acts; even more rarely have the authorities produced credible evidence to support charges of the use or advocacy of violence.

The prisoners are tortured, never given fair trials, they are denied lawyers, their family members are harassed at Orwellian public "hate rallies" organized by the local authorities. The SNB uses threats to families to control journalists, intellectual and expatriates. None of this was ever reported in local media. Journalists are silent on these issues since if they try to voice any of these concerns they soon find themselves sharing the fate of those whose rights they tried to defend. So most often they censor themselves.

As a result, the Uzbek media is run like Orwell's Ministry of Truth. All newspapers, TV and radio stations are state run and a mere tool of propaganda in the government's hands. This leaves the population brainwashed and ignorant. For Big Brother Karimov, of course "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is strength". His repression of the secular opposition led to the growth of the fundamentalist groups, who had more chances to reach audiences using religion.

Human Rights Watch is convinced that the measures against independent Moslems in Uzbekistan constitute religious persecution and has tried to persuade the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to recommend that the Clinton and now Bush administration designate Uzbekistan as a "country of particular concern" for religious freedom, as provided under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The last hearing was scheduled for September 2001, but in the wake of New York and Washington disasters it was postponed.

The issue is now likely to be buried in expediency, in the rush to consolidate allies in the war against the Taleban. Like other repressive regimes jumping on the bandwagon of "Enduring Freedom", Tashkent is eager to get US and international validation for branding all opposition as "terrorism." Uzbekistan allowed US warplanes on its territories and pledged full support to fight "terrorism." However, repression such as Uzbekistan's is not only terrorism against its own innocent citizens, it breeds fundamentalism and terrorism among its opponents and neighbors.

In times of war, we cannot always pick our allies. But Uzbekistan needs the US and the West more than they need Karimov. Now that the fickle attention of the foreign policy establishment is on Central Asia, it is time for the US to use what influence it has on Tashkent, if it wants to avoid a future Iran or Afghanistan and to validate the ideals that President Bush has evoked in this struggle to find and apprehend the perpetrators of the September 11 massacres.