- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, Jan. 10 (UPI) — Uzbekistan has improved its treatment of political dissidents, a freed member of an independent human right group said Friday.

Yuldash Rasulev, a practicing Muslim and member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was released from prison last week under an amnesty announced in December.

Last September, Rasulev was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and distributing extremist literature.

The only evidence given at Rasulev's trial, however, was that he prayed five times a day and had listened to tapes on Islam. He helped people persecuted for their religious beliefs and affiliations.

The New York-based human rights group Human Rights Watch called the trial "politically motivated."

Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government has been tough on practicing Muslims because it fears the country may fall prey to Islamic militancy. International governments and groups have condemned Karimov's policies, however.

Repression of unauthorized Islamic groups in Uzbekistan began after five car bomb attacks in Tashkent in February 1999 that killed 16 people and wounded more than 100 others. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, was blamed.

The Uzbek government views members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir and Wahhabist organizations as potential terrorists and as an ideological breeding ground for terrorists.

After his release last week, Rasulev described life inside his penitentiary in the western Navoi province. He said the use of torture by jailers had stopped, food and medical treatment had become better, and jailers were more polite.

The penitentiary holds 4,500 convicts, including political prisoners.

Talib Yakubov, chairman of the HRSU, told United Press International the visit by top U.N. human rights officials to the country had brought about some of the positive changes.

"The visit of the special rapporteur of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights on the question of torture, Theo van Boven, to Uzbekistan and his inspection of some penitentiaries have initiated some real changes in the penitentiary system of Uzbekistan's Ministry of Internal Affairs," he said.

Uzbekistan is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, but Washington has criticized its policies against dissident groups.

Last November, Lorne Craner, U.S. assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said U.S. relations with Uzbekistan could be "unlimited," but depended on Tashkent's human rights record.

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