Time to get tougher on Uzbekistan
Time to get tougher on Uzbekistan
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Time to get tougher on Uzbekistan

The EU must demonstrate to Islam Karimov that his repressive regime is unacceptable

How do you deal with an authoritarian regime that not only has one of the most appalling human rights records on earth, but also threatens to spark violent upheaval internally and spread instability regionally? How, indeed, do you deal with Uzbekistan?

This is the question EU foreign ministers will be facing when they meet on 16-17 October to review the punitive measures they imposed against Uzbekistan last October.

After Uzbek security forces shot dead hundreds of mostly unarmed protesters following an armed uprising in the eastern city of Andijan on 13 May 2005, the EU responded by partially suspending its partnership and co-operation agreement with Uzbekistan, enacting an embargo on arms exports and a visa ban on some government officials.

While these measures did not make use of every tool the EU had at its disposal, they did send a strong signal. And it was at least more than others were willing to do: to this day, the US has still not taken any action in response to the Andijan massacre.

When the EU foreign ministers meet next month to consider the situation in Uzbekistan, they will find that nothing has improved during the past year. The government of President Islam Karimov continues to refuse any independent, international inquiry into the Andijan events and has conducted show trials of hundreds of people allegedly involved in the uprising, ignoring both of the key conditions formulated by the EU for lifting its sanctions.

Instead, the regime has continued its post-Andijan repression, rounding up and threatening witnesses. Torture of detainees by the security services is still routine, or “systematic” in the words of the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. The economic space continues to shrink, favouring only a tiny cadre of cronies around Karimov, while most of the country’s population live in grinding poverty.

In short, there is no progress on any front to give EU foreign ministers any reason to ease the sanctions regime this time around. Actually, the situation is only getting worse.

As well as the ongoing persecution and abuse, the country’s attitude toward international business has become dramatically more hostile in recent months. In August, the authorities launched a criminal probe into a US-Uzbek joint venture company operating the largest gold mine in the world, the Muruntau open-pit mine in the Qizilqum desert 400 kilometres west of Tashkent. The US firm Newmont Mining Corporation faced a hail of tax charges that seemed little more than a move to reallocate valuable assets to regime insiders. In the same month, Tashkent revoked the licence of Marakand Minerals, a subsidiary of UK-based Oxus Gold, to develop the Khandiza gold and zinc deposit, transferring it to a state-owned company. All further rewards for Karimov’s faithful.

There are several concrete steps that EU foreign ministers should take. First and most visibly, the Council should expand its current visa ban to include President Islam Karimov, Justice Minister Buritosh Mustafaev, Defence Minister Ruslan Mirzaev, General Prosecutor Rashidjon Kodirov, Head of National Security Service Rustam Inoiatov, and Andijan Regional Governor Saidullo Begaliev – all with responsibility for the Andijan massacre itself or the subsequent show trials, which the government designed to conceal the truth from its own citizens and the world.

Second, the Council of Ministers should freeze the assets of all those subject to the visa ban and prohibit their access to banking systems within the EU.

Third, it should expel Uzbekistan from the generalised system of trade preferences (GSP), as has been done with Belarus. EU foreign ministers should call on the Uzbek government to stop harassment and persecution of human rights defenders, independent journalists and members of the opposition, and to release all those detained on politically-motivated charges pending an independent review of their cases. Additionally, EU leaders should pursue the fate of those forcibly returned to Uzbekistan and call on the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Ukraine not to return forcibly anyone to Uzbekistan who would likely be persecuted or be at risk of torture upon return.

Finally, the EU ministers should support measures aimed at keeping alive those few signs of independent activity within the country and prepare the region for the possible implosion of Uzbekistan. Freedom of information projects reporting to and about Uzbekistan, for example, must be well-funded. Neighbouring countries, all fragile to one degree or another, need assistance in crisis planning, pre-positioning of resources to handle refugee flows, improving policing and border security. Increased aid is needed for ministries responsible for emergency situations.

Tashkent has had a year to demonstrate how it will respond to European concerns over the Andijan massacre and its only response has been to become more repressive. The regime is a deepening threat to its own citizens and the region, and the EU must demonstrate by its words and actions that this is unacceptable.

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