TASHKENT--In the markets, on the streets, even in the privacy of their homes or cars, the people of Uzbekistan are sphinxlike. They think things are going...well, as best as could be expected. Not good...but not bad. They are canny traders of information, offering little, but quickly asking, "And what do you think about Uzbekistan?" and then listening with neither expression nor comment. They shake their heads in sympathy for the September 11 victims. But they have nothing to say about the three-week-old US airbase here--nothing. Some even express surprise to hear of the existence of an American military presence on formerly Soviet territory, a base from which we may (or may not) be dropping bombs and special forces into Afghanistan. It's probably feigned surprise, but considering the Pentagon-sponsored news blackout--not one journalist has been allowed within two miles of the base--ignorance is plausible.
Uzbekistan has its own problems with terrorists, most spectacularly illustrated when a 1999 car bomb in downtown Tashkent, the capital, killed sixteen and wounded more than 100. So most Uzbeks are quick to volunteer that terrorists are, indeed, very bad.
But ask whether President Islam Karimov's war on terrorists has become a war on nonviolent Islamic groups--complete with arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial killings--and they again refuse to bite. Terrorists are bad. The president is good. As to torture, well, abuses may (or may not) be happening. But if they are, then what's important is, "President Karimov doesn't know about it"--this from a university professor who had just told me how his son was arrested as a terrorist "because he went to the mosque"; was held for forty-three days without a lawyer; was cajoled into confessing by security officers who tore out his fingernails and inserted needles in their place; and who later renounced his confession in court as the product of torture, only to be given six years by a judge who replied, "As long as it is written, it is so."
When I demurred that President Karimov surely knows what's going on--if only because foreign governments and human rights groups have complained to him--the professor looked down at his feet and shook his head curtly. "He doesn't know."
On October 5, President Karimov and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared together in Tashkent to announce a "qualitatively new relationship." Uzbekistan would provide us with an airbase and overfly rights; and we would defend Uzbekistan from fuzzily defined future foes.
Our newly minted ally Karimov was the Communist Party boss of Soviet Uzbekistan, and in 1991 he sat on the fence as long as possible during the coup attempt that lifted Boris Yeltsin to new heights. (In Tashkent, those who demonstrated prematurely against the coup and for independence were beaten and fined.)
Such wariness was not without grounds. In December 1991, as the Soviet Union was being dismantled, Karimov found himself in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley provinces, in a building surrounded by thousands of (unarmed) people chanting "Allah akbar!" Inside, Karimov heard the contradictory demands of a kaleidoscope of groups represented on the street--from calls that he register certain pro-democracy movements to calls that he establish an Islamic state of Uzbekistan, modeled on Iran. He promised to think it all over, and they let him go home.
Soon after, mass arrests began. From that inauspicious beginning, Karimov has jailed, disappeared or driven into exile opponents of every stripe. Today there is no independent media. The courts and the Parliament are for show. The other presidential candidate in the 2000 race publicly cast his vote for Karimov. Police routinely break up any assemblies of people.
In a nation where the average salary is about $300 a year, some human rights activists are just as indignant about the government's corruption as they are about the repression. "Corruption is terrible, even worse than it was in the Soviet era," says Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, adding rhetorically, "When foreign governments give credits, don't they care if it's all stolen?"
The outspoken Ardzinov, 65, has been jailed and beaten over the years. He's seen a nighttime explosion rip the door off his apartment; he's writhed on the floor of that apartment being kicked by police, while other police packed up his computer and archives. In 1994, he says, the US Embassy asked Ardzinov to come by to meet visiting US Senator Arlen Specter. On his way there he was intercepted. He says two thugs asked him, "You're again going to the Americans to complain?", and then shoved him into a boxy white Zhiguli for a day of fun and death threats in the country.
After that first thousands-strong protest in 1991, the Uzbek countryside fell silent--until about four years ago. In 1997, Karimov's regime finally found an obligingly uncompromising enemy: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan began to murder police officers and bureaucrats. Or at least that's what they say in Tashkent. But a visit to the Fergana Valley finds that it's less clear-cut: Many locals say the government simply started pinning run-of-the-mill murders on "Islamic radicals." Either way, by 1999 the IMU was car-bombing Tashkent. Its militants are now sheltered by the Taliban, and occasionally launch military incursions on Uzbeki soil from Afghanistan.
Post-September 11, the IMU was one of the few terrorist organizations singled out for elimination by President Bush. Fair enough. But there are other underground groups, both secular and Muslim, that advocate political change in Uzbekistan through peaceful means. One group in particular the government has targeted is Hizb-u-Tahrir, a Jordanian-based organization with some ugly ideas and a minor following here. The government says it's a terrorist hive because it wants Uzbekistan to be an Islamic theocracy. Hizb-u-Tahrir leaflets criticize the regime's cruelty and corruption; they also deride Karimov as "a Jew" and say democracy is evil. But they don't advocate violence.
Nonetheless, possession of a single Hizb-u-Tahrir leaflet is now punishable by up to twenty years in jail (to say nothing of pretrial torture). Ardzinov's group says there are more than 7,000 Muslims in Uzbek jails for crimes like praying in private or going to the wrong mosque. New York-based Human Rights Watch--the only international group with a permanent office in Tashkent--agrees. It is in this context that Acacia Shields, a Human Rights Watch researcher, worries about vague new security guarantees.
"President Bush said we'd make the distinction that [America is pursuing] a war on terrorism, not a war on Islam," Shields says. "But the Uzbek government has proven time and again it's not able to make that distinction. So now we have security guarantees. Are we talking about protecting [Uzbekistan] from the Taliban or the IMU? If so, fine. But my fear is that the Uzbek government will turn to the United States and say: Help us in countering our 'internal threat.' And that means: Help us continue this horrific campaign against peaceful, independent Muslims."
More and more, the police are planting a few Hizb-u-Tahrir fliers on those they dislike and sending them off to hell. Among those to suffer such treatment are human rights workers, including Ismail Adilov, a slightly built graying man. During his two years in jail for possession of Hizb-u-Tahrir fliers he says the police planted on him, Adilov, 51, was forced to sing Uzbek patriotic songs and to compose poems to President Karimov, and he was beaten for any lapses of artistic inspiration. In July he was released, minus a few teeth, on Karimov's direct order. He credits his freedom to the US State Department. American pressure freed another prominent rights activist in 2000, and also won the Red Cross access to Uzbek prisons, all as part of a quid-pro-quo of the certification process to make Uzbekistan eligible for aid money under the "Cooperative Threat Reduction" program.
The US government is now divided, with State wanting better human rights in Uzbekistan and the Pentagon wanting bases and Tashkent's willing cooperation. Which raises the question: Why can't we have it all? We are doing a huge favor for Karimov's regime--we have arrived to seek out and destroy his enemies in Afghanistan--and we are paying him handsomely for the privilege. We already give Uzbekistan some $30 million in aid, according to the State Department, and that is set to soar now that we are "allies." We could demand that Uzbekistan take some minimal steps forward on human rights; instead, we have been hemming and hawing.
Given all this, there's no reason that the United States can't simply demand that Uzbekistan move toward a minimal threshold of human rights guarantees. The State Department has been delaying release of its annual list of countries that do not respect religious freedoms; it should release the list, with Uzbekistan near the top. Washington might also remind Tashkent (and itself) that US law does not allow us to fund any foreign intelligence agency that dabbles in torture. We could insist on Uzbekistan adopting habeas corpus. For that matter, the President or the Secretary of State could simply come out with a few strong public statements on Uzbekistan--remarks crafted so as neither to express contempt, nor to invite it.
Update: On October 30, the State Department issued its annual report on international religious freedoms. One glaring omissison that has infuriated human rights activists is Uzbekistan. Click here  for more information.