- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

The government of Uzbekistan used intimidation and threats to close down hundreds of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the past six months, according to NGO representatives, prompting some members of Congress to call for sanctions.

Since January, the Justice Ministry in Tashkent has ousted American NGOs including Freedom House, the Eurasia Foundation, the American Bar Association, and most recently, American Councils for Collaboration in Education and Language Study.

The crackdown was not limited to foreign groups. Uzbek beekeepers’ associations and karate clubs met the same fate.

“Basically the government is scared,” Lisa Davis of Freedom House said in a telephone interview. “They just don’t want people to be assembling at all.”

In response to these developments and other human rights violations like the May 2005 massacre at Andijan in which government forces killed hundreds of demonstrators, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, both Republicans, introduced legislation last month that includes sanctions against Uzbekistan.

Last month, Mr. Smith introduced the Central Asian Democracy and Human Rights Promotion Act, which would freeze assets, ban arms sales and refuse visas to members of President Islam Karimov’s government and anyone involved in the Andijan shootings.

Mr. Smith said in a May 12 press release: “Sanctions will cause Karimov to rethink his policy of isolation while also sending a message from the international community that this behavior is unacceptable.”

Mr. McCain introduced the Andijan Accountability Act of 2006, which imposes similar targeted sanctions, in the Senate around the same time.

Both bills, Mr. Smith’s with 10 co-sponsors and Mr. McCain’s with seven, are being marked up in the early legislative stages.

H. Knox Thames, counsel for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a telephone interview: “We are pretty confident that [the legislation] will move on. It’s just a matter of getting our ducks in a row now, which sometimes can take a while.”

Although the legislation is a long way from becoming law, it has provoked debate about the effectiveness of sanctions against Uzbekistan.

Undecided on sanctions

Jahangir Mamatov, chairman of the Congress of Democratic Uzbekistan, said: “People in Uzbekistan think that Karimov looks strong now because he has the support of Russia. But U.S. sanctions will help, because people will see that the democratic world does not support Karimov. It will give them heart and power, and they will struggle against him.”

Abdumannob Polat, an Uzbek dissident who moved to the United States in 1993 and now works as an independent analyst, disagrees that sanctions will work and suggested a different approach.

“U.S. sanctions are a bad idea because Karimov will still have the support of Russia and China. U.S. interests are the most important thing, and if we could work on our shared concerns of terrorism, the rise of China, and the Afghan drug trade, we could gain leverage back in the region,” he said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Polat said that increased funding and economic assistance, not sanctions, could eventually soften the regime.

Aaron Rose, president of Rose Consulting, which advises companies interested in expanding abroad, said that although it is not paramount at the moment, American investors have shown interest in doing business in Uzbekistan, rather than shutting it out.

“From the private sector,” Mr. Rose said, “many companies recognize that because of energy, resources and geographical location between European and Asian trade routes, Uzbekistan is a place that they need to be thinking about in the future for investment.

“The interest is there,” he said, but because of current political tension, investors are “just sitting on [their] hands and waiting to see how things develop.”

Due to the cooling of relations between the Washington and Tashkent over U.S. criticism of the Andijan incident, and the subsequent loss of an important military base near the Afghan border, the United States has cut back its involvement in the region, say sponsors of regional programs.

Mrs. Davis of Freedom House said: “At this critical time when countries in this region are beginning to slide back into authoritarianism, the U.S. government and USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] are considering cutting rule-of-law and human rights programs in that area. This is extremely alarming.”

Many NGO workers and analysts link the start of the NGO crackdown to the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which popular protests toppled Kremlin-backed leaders from power. Mr. Karimov’s fear of a similar fate provoked a wave of restrictive measures against NGO funding and activities in Uzbekistan, say Western NGOs.

Outsiders investigated

Mr. Karimov told the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta shortly after the Orange Revolution: “We are now actively researching these organizations and the sources of their financing to determine whether their real purpose is to foster” revolt.

Yet it wasn’t long before grant restrictions and warnings were replaced by harassment and lawsuits, say NGO workers.

Andrew Wilson, president of the Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia, said: “The government is using intimidation tactics, including requiring NGO workers to fill out forms naming their family members and sometimes even making them provide photos of their families. Then, they say, ‘Isn’t your family important? Why not just close down?’

“The Ministry of Justice called one woman and told her that she needed to come into the office for a few minutes and the officials offered her a ride. They took her to court instead and tried her in her slippers,” said Mr. Wilson.

Once the Ministry of Justice brought organizations to court, foreign organizations like the Eurasia Foundation chose to shut down to avoid facing criminal charges.

“Our lawyer wrote a 40-page opinion arguing that none of the charges against us were valid. But he also told us that the Ministry of Justice tends not to lose in court,” said Mr. Wilson.

Many citizens of Uzbekistan are not aware their government is behind the closures. Diana Aronson, program manager for Future Leaders Exchange, an exchange program that helps Uzbeks come to the United States to study, said: “From what we’ve been told, the government of Uzbekistan doesn’t want the finger pointed at them. Some Uzbekistani citizens asked U.S. Embassy officials why America was pulling out its organizations, which is not the case.”

Some in Uzbekistan who do understand the situation say they are too afraid to do anything about it.

“As a citizen of Uzbekistan, I do not agree with the dictatorship regime of our government,” Muhiddin, a 22-year-old associated with local NGOs in Tashkent, wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times.

“One of the main problems of lacking democracy in my country is the absence of national unity. Uzbek people do not support anyone who wants democracy and fights for it. I think Uzbekistan is one of the most fearful nations in the world,” said Muhiddin, who asked that his family name and organization not be identified for fear of retaliation.

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