- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

MOSCOW — A government crackdown on foreign aid groups and human rights organizations in Uzbekistan has claimed two more victims.

Washington-based Freedom House and the U.S.-funded Eurasia Foundation yesterday said they are shutting down their operations in the ex-Soviet state after a court in the capital, Tashkent, ordered the closure of the Freedom House office for providing free Internet access to local human rights activists.

Branka Sesto, the group’s director in Uzbekistan, said the decision followed months of pressure on Freedom House, including a court ruling in January ordering the pro-democracy group to suspend its operations for six months.

“Obviously we’re very disappointed, but they’ve made it clear we are not welcome here,” she said.

The Eurasia Foundation, which is accused of not properly registering its office and holding unauthorized seminars, said it would voluntarily shut down after 12 years in the country rather than fight a losing battle in court.

“Looking at the experience of other international organizations, we didn’t think we could win. So we decided to liquidate ourselves rather than go through the court proceedings,” said Jeff Erlich, the director of Eurasia’s Tashkent office.

About 35 local employees will be laid off from the Eurasia Foundation, which funds a wide range of civil society and entrepreneurial programs, and about 20 employees will lose their jobs at Freedom House.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s government has been increasing pressure on Western-backed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for the past two years, asserting they support opposition movements similar to those that overthrew repressive regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

But it’s only since a bloody government crackdown on protesters in the city of Andijan in May that the government has taken active steps to expel foreign groups from the country.

Witnesses and rights groups say hundreds of people were killed in Andijan when government troops opened fire on a large crowd of protesters. Uzbek authorities put the death toll at 187.

Uzbekistan’s relations with the West and in particular the United States — which formerly considered Tashkent a close ally and operated a military base in the country — soured after Washington and European capitals criticized the violence in Andijan.

Two U.S.-funded charities, press advocacy group Internews and education charity IREX, were closed by court orders last year. Pressure on Western press has also been rising. The British Broadcasting Corp. closed its bureau recently, citing official harassment, and U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had its permission to operate in the country withdrawn.

Leaders in a number of ex-Soviet states, including President Vladimir Putin in Russia, have accused Western governments of using NGOs to support opposition movements aimed at overthrowing local governments. Mr. Putin signed a law earlier this year that imposed strict controls on Russian NGOs.

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