LONDON: The bodies of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Uzbekistan are scarcely cold, and already the White House is looking for ways to dismiss them. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan said those shot dead in the city of Andijan included “Islamic terrorists” offering armed resistance. They should, McClellan insists, seek democratic government “through peaceful means, not through violence”.
But how? This is not Georgia, Ukraine or even Kyrgyzstan. There, the opposition parties could fight elections. The results were fixed, but the opportunity to propagate their message brought change. In Uzbek elections on December 26, the opposition was not allowed to take part at all.
And there is no media freedom. On Saturday morning, when Andijan had been leading world news bulletins for two days, most people in the capital, Tashkent, still had no idea anything was happening. Nor are demonstrations in the capital tolerated. On December 7 a peaceful picket at the gates of the British embassy was broken up with great violence, its victims including women and children. So how can Uzbeks pursue democracy by “peaceful means”? Take the 23 businessmen whose trial for “Islamic extremism” sparked recent events. Had the crowd not sprung them from jail, what would have awaited them? The conviction rate in criminal and political trials in Uzbekistan is over 99 per cent — in President Karimov’s torture chambers, everyone confesses.
But the torture by no means ends on conviction. In prison there is torture to make you sign a recantation of faith and declaration of loyalty to the president. And there is torture to make you sign evidence implicating “accomplices”. It was at this stage that the infamous boiling to death of Muzafar Avazov and Husnidin Alimov took place in Jaslik prison in 2002. I expect the government will take care that the 23, if not already dead, die in the mopping up.
You may think I exaggerate. Read the 2002 report by Professor Theo van Boven, the UN special rapporteur on torture, in which he denounced torture in Uzbekistan as “widespread and systemic”. Human Rights Watch last year produced a book with more than 300 pages of case studies. One of the uses of Uzbek torture is to provide the CIA and MI6 with “intelligence” material linking the Uzbek opposition with Islamist terrorism and Al Qaeda. The information is almost entirely bogus, and it was my efforts to stop MI6 using it that led ultimately to my effective dismissal from the Foreign Office.
The information may be untrue, but it is valuable because it feeds into the US agenda. Karimov is very much George Bush’s man in central Asia. There is not a senior member of the US administration who is not on record saying warm words about Karimov. There is not a single word recorded by any of them calling for free elections in Uzbekistan.
And it’s not just words. In 2002, the US gave Uzbekistan over $500m in aid, including $120m in military aid and $80m in security aid. The level has declined — but not nearly as much as official figures seem to show (much is hidden in Pentagon budgets after criticism of the 2002 figure).
The airbase opened by the US at Khanabad is not essential to operations in Afghanistan, its claimed raison d’etre. It has a more crucial role as the easternmost of Donald Rumsfeld’s “lily pads” — air bases surrounding the “wider Middle East”, by which the Pentagon means the belt of oil and gas fields stretching from the Middle East through the Caucasus and central Asia. A key component of this strategic jigsaw fell into place this spring when US firms were contracted to build a pipeline to bring central Asia’s hydrocarbons out through Afghanistan to the Arabian sea. That strategic interest explains the recent signature of the US-Afghan strategic partnership agreement, as well as Bush’s strong support for Karimov.
So the Uzbek people can keep on dying. They are not worth a lot of cash, so who cares? I travelled to Andijan a year ago to meet the opposition leaders, and kept in touch. I can give you a direct assurance that they are - or in many cases were — in no sense Islamist militants. They died an unwanted embarrassment to US foreign policy. We will doubtless hear some pious hypocrisies from Jack Straw. But when I was seeking funding to support the proto-democrats, the Foreign Office turned me down flat.
The US will fund “human rights” training in Uzbekistan but not help for the democratic opposition, in contrast to its policy elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. When Jon Purnell, the US ambassador, last year attended the opening of a human rights centre in the Ferghana valley, he interrupted a local speaker criticising repression. Political points, Purnell opined, were not allowed.
The western news agenda has moved the dead of Andijan from the “democrat” to the “terrorist” pile. Karimov remains in power. The White House will be happy. That’s enough for Mr Blair’s government.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.
(The writer was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004)