- - Thursday, October 6, 2011

BERLIN — The Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved a waiver to restrictions on military aid to the Uzbek government in a move to help enhance supply routes to American troops in Afghanistan, but opponents say it will only prop up the autocratic Uzbek regime.

A State Department spokeswoman said the waiver will help address security concerns about enhancing “Uzbekistan’s ability to protect its border through which cargo destined for U.S. forces in Afghanistan flows.”

The growing instability in Afghanistan due to the Taliban over the past years is considered a threat to Uzbekistan, and President Islam Karimov has expressed fears it will spill over the border.

“Otherwise, the current certification provision would remain the same,” the State Department spokeswoman said. “This waiver and the provision of defensive border protection equipment to Uzbekistan would not in any way affect our efforts to encourage respect for human rights in Uzbekistan.”

But human rights officials say it gives Uzbekistan a free pass.

**FILE** Kyrgyz soldiers conduct a foot patrol on June 20, 2010, in the village of Surattash, 10 miles from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, near the border of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. (Associated Press)
**FILE** Kyrgyz soldiers conduct a foot patrol on June 20, 2010, in ... more >

“Suspending the restrictions discounts the symbolic importance they had,” said Steve Swerdlow, researcher for Human Rights Watch who led the Tashkent office until he was expelled in December.

“These restrictions symbolized that the Uzbek government is one of the ‘worst of the worst,’ a serial violator of the most fundamental human rights. They showed that it was U.S. policy to support pro-democracy and civil society activists on the ground — those that would play a critical role in a freer Uzbekistan.”

A group of 20 human rights, labor and other groups have expressed serious concern over the measure and wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Uzbekistan, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, remains one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Mr. Karimov has ruled the country since its break with Soviets.

In their letter, the 20 interest groups urged Mrs. Clinton to “stand behind your strong past statements regarding human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.”

Since 2004, restrictions have been placed on U.S. military aid due to Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record, which has not improved, analysts say.

Relations between the two countries became strained in 2005, after the U.S. asked for a formal investigation of the events in Andijan, where hundreds of demonstrators were shot by Uzbek military forces.

In retaliation, Mr. Karimov’s government denied the the U.S. access to the Karshi-Khanabad air base close to the Afghan border.