Behind the Silk Curtain

Behind the Silk Curtain

Mini Teaser: Despot Watch turns the spotlight on Islam Karimov, America's newest Central Asian ally.

by Author(s): Joe Bob Briggs

The only other person who speaks publicly in Tashkent about the freedom and welfare of the Uzbeks is this fellow Craig Murray, the British ambassador, who had the bad manners to say in an October 2002 Tashkent speech that Uzbekistan is not a democracy, that it's not becoming a democracy, and that Karimov's war against terrorism is simply an excuse for persecution.

The American embassy, which had gone to great pains to portray Uzbekistan as an "emerging" democracy, was extremely upset. Uzbek leaders demanded an apology. Ambassador Murray refused to stand down, continuing to rail against the government as late as August 2003, speaking about repression of political activity, lack of free speech, the inequality of wealth, the absence of reform, and, by the way, the systematic use of torture. Eventually he caused so much alarm in London that he was investigated by the Foreign Office for misconduct. In October 2003 he returned to London for "medical reasons", but he's continued to make speeches about Karimov's government, and the U.S. embassy in Tashkent has made no secret of loathing him.

Of course, Murray is not saying anything that hasn't been said already by various international aid agencies. The Amnesty International report from 2000 recounts the torture of five members of the Party of Liberation (a banned Islamic group that professes to be non-violent) through such means as suffocation with a plastic bag, hanging upside down, needles under the nails, burning of the hands and feet, and electric shocks administered via devices fitted to their heads. The top United Nations official on torture, Theo van Boven, said in December 2002 that such treatment--in order to force confessions--is "not just incidental but has a nature of being systemic in this country."

Everything started to get messy around 1999, after a failed attempt on Karimov's life (always a wakeup call for a dictator), resulting in more roundups, summary trials, detentions--and an emboldened resistance. A few months back, 43 people were killed in Tashkent and Bukhara over three days, when the nation's first suicide bombings took place. And there are indications that the Islamic militants are mobilizing for more. But the dissidents may have overplayed their hand. President Bush, no doubt at Karimov's urging, issued a statement, saying,

These attacks only strengthen our resolve to defeat terrorists wherever they hide and strike, working in close cooperation with Uzbekistan and our other partners in the Global War on Terror.

In other words: the West doesn't regard these as liberation movements.

But had Karimov pulled a bait-and-switch? The official Uzbek press blamed the bombings on the Party of Liberation, which had hitherto been non-violent and issued a denial of involvement from its London office. The much more likely assassins would have been the IMU, which is pretty well tied to terrorism throughout the region but is less of a long-term threat to Karimov. (The IMU is mostly made up of impoverished farmers, whereas the Party of Liberation is made up of college-educated urbanites.) Karimov used the attacks to link the Party of Liberation to "international terror", whereas Human Rights Watch and other groups said it was simply a homegrown insurgency in response to secret police practices such as parading prisoners before their neighbors and forcing them to publicly confess themselves as traitors and enemies of the state, or arresting entire families in order to gain the surrender of a relative. The truth in Central Asia is always hard to sort out, but Karimov made clear where he stands:

I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. . . . If my child chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.

The week before he said that, Karimov and his ministers had formally declared 2004 "The Year of Kindness and Mercy" in Uzbekistan. Presumably this means they had dismantled one of their flesh-boiling cauldrons as a prelude to reform.

Essay Types: Essay