In the desert steppe of northwestern Uzbekistan, great dust storms lift toxic pesticides into the air, and a powdery, desiccated brine known as the “dry tears of the Aral Sea” contaminates the soil. Amid this bleak Central Asian landscape, one can find an instrument of terror that rivals any rebel attack in Uzbekistan’s history: the Jaslyk detention complex, a vast vault of human misery that has earned its reputation as the country’s worst political prison.
Anyone who wishes to understand better the spate of violence that recently tore through Uzbekistan–the suicide bomb blasts and gunfights that resulted in nearly fifty deaths–must consider the dark drama that regularly unfolds at Jaslyk, and institutions like it. These prisons form the backbone of President Islam Karimov’s decade-long campaign to crush all forms of independent political and religious expression in Uzbekistan.
No roads lead to Jaslyk. But one can find a way into its horrific interiors by reading Human Rights Watch’s latest report on Uzbekistan. It documents how inmates are housed sixteen to a room, and how they are often forced to spend their days crouching on their heels, with their hands held behind their heads. Prisoners must offer thanks to President Karimov with every request to stretch a muscle. Inmates are forbidden to speak to one another.
This setting is where the Uzbek government, a key US ally in Central Asia, tries to “break” its opponents. In the report, Jaslyk’s director boasts that he coerced as many as 80 percent of his inmates to “write letters of repentance”–a statistic achieved by systematic torture. Sometimes the brutality extends beyond human endurance. Between 1998 and 2003, at least six inmates died from abuse; one was boiled to death.
Seven thousand political prisoners inhabit Uzbekistan’s gulag. Karimov, who ran Uzbekistan when it was part of the Soviet Union–and who has continued to do so throughout its independence–is a firm believer in governing with an iron fist. “A leadership that abandons order and discipline can never return to power,” he said in 1991, speaking out against Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to reform Communist rule.
Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but the government is staunchly secular. Since Karimov’s crackdown first began, in the early 1990s, it has targeted a network of militant Muslim insurgents, most notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan–a group of several hundred fighters who vowed to overthrow the government by force, and who have since joined with Al Qaeda forces.
But instead of concentrating just on the IMU, the Uzbek government has sought to root out all independent forms of piety. Uzbeks can go to prison for possessing unsanctioned Islamic literature, for praying at the wrong mosque or for praying at the right mosque but at the wrong time. They can go to prison for having a beard, or for being related to someone in prison because he had a beard. They can go to prison for no real reason at all.
This atmosphere of oppressiveness is compounded by Karimov’s other policies. Freedom of association is curtailed (civic groups must be registered), the media are state-controlled (the 9/11 attacks were not broadcast until 9/12), electoral politics are a farce (in the last election, Karimov’s sole opponent voted for Karimov), corruption is pervasive (bribes for college degrees can go as high as $10,000), unemployment is rampant.
It is no wonder that discontent in Uzbekistan is finding an outlet in the utopianism of Islamic extremists, and that some radical groups have turned to violence to achieve their aims. Last weekend, the Jihad Islamic Group–a new organization in Central Asia–stepped forward to claim responsibility for the attacks “These operations came as a response to the injustice and brutality practiced by the infidel leaders in this country,” the group said in a statement, adding that Muslims in Uzbekistan are “tortured and imprisoned as a way to terrorize and degrade them.”
At least, some of Karimov’s advisers might have been able to predict this. An internal memo written by an Uzbek think tank linked to the government, and obtained by analysts at the International Crisis Group, noted: “Incompetent actions by the authorities turn legitimate use of law enforcement methods with regard to religious extremists into a struggle with Islam itself, which makes the ideology of Islamic extremism more attractive.”
But instead of heeding these warnings, the Uzbek government has continued to do what it did in 1999, when Tashkent was shaken by spectacular bombings much like this month’s: tighten the screws upon its beleaguered population. In 2001 I watched this system in motion when I visited a mass trial. After the verdicts, all guilty, visiting family members chanted Allah u-Akbar, or God is Great. Religion was their protest.
Over the past several years, experts say, this kind of defiance has been accompanied by an even more dangerous form of protest: suicide by self-immolation. “It doesn’t take much to go from suicide by self-immolation to killing yourself–and others–with explosives,” Fiona Hill, a Central Asia analyst at the Brookings Institution, told me. “It’s a small step to take when the level of desperation is so severe.”
The Uzbek government’s reaction to the recent attacks is not promising. Foreign Affairs Minister Sodyk Safayev borrowed an expression from Vladimir Putin when he rushed to call the bombings “links in a single chain” of terrorist acts in Spain, Morocco, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and, of course, the United States. But the evidence so far suggests that the Uzbek bombings are notably dissimilar from these other acts of violence.
According to the investigation’s preliminary analysis, a large majority of the deaths this month were either of police officers or of the attackers, who either accidentally detonated their explosives or were killed in gunfights with state security. Similarly, the 1999 attacks–six coordinated car bombs–targeted government buildings. Compare that with the recent bombings in Madrid, which were intended to maximize civilian casualties.
Since the 9/11 attacks, US policy toward Uzbekistan has been based upon a simple political calculation: No matter how many Islamic radicals the Karimov regime’s oppressive governance may churn out, Uzbekistan’s military cooperation–specifically, the basing rights it has offered the Pentagon at an airfield near Afghanistan –makes the country too important in the war on terrorism to be tough on human rights.
The recent bombings make it more difficult to make this argument. They demonstrate the inherent fragility of Uzbekistan’s leadership, and point to the scope of future regional instability that could emerge if the domestic crisis Karimov is creating is ignored. To combat terrorism, it is not good enough to say, as Franklin Roosevelt once reputedly did of Nicaragua’s dictator: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
The United States should examine how it might better coordinate its Central Asia policy, so it is not at once criticizing the Uzbek regime for human rights abuses, while funneling it millions in aid. One year after American soldiers landed in Uzbekistan to set up a logistics, intelligence-gathering, and search-and-rescue base for Pentagon operations in Afghanistan, US assistance to Uzbekistan nearly quadrupled to $300 million.
That sends a loud message. Islamic radicals in Uzbekistan understood it and began printing leaflets that said the United States was the “brain center for Karimov.” It did not help when Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that, of all things, the United States would assist Karimov in his investigation into the attacks. Human rights groups are already calling Uzbekistan’s investigation an unjust and largely indiscriminate dragnet.
Unquestionably, American policy-makers face a tough choice. Washington has so far tried to foster reform in Central Asia through numerous small-scale projects, and through back-channel dialogue with government officials. But in the coming weeks, it will have the opportunity to make a bold, and highly visible, gesture by holding back a significant portion of aid. It should do this, and it should make it clear why: The Uzbek government must take real–rather than cosmetic– steps to dismantle the political tinderbox it has created before it can claim its share of American assistance.
Meanwhile, it is worth thinking about the man who was boiled to death at Jaslyk prison — his name was Muzafar Avazov, and he also faced a difficult decision. His captors severely beat him in the head and neck, because he insisted that no amount of abuse could prevent him from praying as he wished. Avazov could have escaped torture, and ultimately his death, by capitulating. But for him, there was no compromise with tyranny.