/ 24 December 2007

Uzbek president returned in election ‘farce’

Uzbekistan’s autocratic ruler Islam Karimov on Sunday tightened his grip on power, when he was re-elected president in an election condemned by opposition activists as illegal and a ”farce”.

Karimov won an overwhelming victory despite being ineligible to stand as a candidate, having already served two consecutive presidential terms.

Election officials claimed that Karimov’s first term began in 2000 — despite the fact that he has ruled Uzbekistan for 18 years, first as a Communist party boss, and then, after independence, as president.

His government is among the most repressive in former Soviet Central Asia. Uzbekistan, the region’s most populous country, is at the hub of an energy-rich region that is the subject of rivalry between Russia, the United States and China.

But even by the grim democratic standards of the neighbourhood, Karimov presides over a particularly authoritarian regime, his critics say. The BBC’s website is blocked, dissidents are locked up, and a strange and depressing silence blankets the capital, Tashkent, a city of wide grey boulevards and unlovely Soviet architecture.

In interviews with the Guardian, opposition activists on Sunday said the poll was a ”joke”. In the run-up to the election opposition parties were denied registration; most activists have already fled abroad.

”It’s not democratic. Karimov is a neo-communist dictator. He’s a bit like Mugabe,” Atanazar Arif, the leader of the banned opposition Erk Democratic party, said. ”He has no intention of giving up power,” he added.

Before the elections, the secret police arrested dozens of opposition activists and put them in jail. Others were placed under house arrest. Last week Yusuf Djumayaev, an opposition poet, was arrested in the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara after putting an anti-Karimov banner in his car. His whereabouts are unknown.

Around 300 dissidents are currently in jail, human rights campaigners say — including Jamshid Karimov, the president’s 41-year-old nephew. In addition, 8 000 religious prisoners have been incarcerated as part of a crackdown against Islamic activity.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent a tiny election observation mission, saying that ”due to the apparent limited nature of the competition” it saw no point in conducting comprehensive monitoring.

Pro-government politicians, meanwhile, have been struggling to explain why the president, who is 70 next month, has been allowed to stand in the first place. Under Uzbekistan’s Constitution Karimov is obliged to retire. He was first elected in 1991. A pliant Parliament prolonged his rule several times — including after his last election ”victory” in 2000. ”We have our own traditions. It’s not like Britain,” said Ziyedulla Ubaydullaev, an MP and lawyer for the pro-presidential Liberal Democratic Party. He added: ”But we have high standards of democracy.”

Asked why it was necessary to ban the BBC he replied: ”The BBC attacks us.”

Activists say that the Karimov regime has become more brutally repressive since the massacre in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005, when government soldiers killed almost 1 000 people. The official death toll was put at 187 — with Karimov blaming Islamist extremists and the west for the uprising. The revolt prompted Karimov to expel US troops, based in the country since 2001, and to forge a new strategic partnership with Russia.

Observers inside the country say that Uzbekistan’s economy is on the brink of collapse — with much of its 27-million population living in poverty. Average wages are $24 a month

”Uzbekistan is like the Soviet Union, but the wrong way round. Everything bad about the Soviet Union we still have. But everything that was good — like its welfare and education system — has disappeared,” Nigara Khidovatova, leader of the opposition Free Farmers party, said.

”Our economy is feudal. The situation for workers in the countryside is one of near-slavery. Corruption is rampant,” she added.

Opposition leaders say they are exasperated with the European Union, and especially Germany, for not pressurising the Karimov government to end human rights abuses. The EU recently weakened its sanctions against his administration.

”I’m disappointed by the West. There needs to be a total political, cultural and economic boycott of Uzbekistan. It worked in Libya. It can work here,” Khidovatova said. However she had nothing but praise for Craig Murray — Britain’s former ambassador in Tashkent, sacked in 2004 for criticising the Karimov regime.

Surat Ikramov is one of only a handful of activists left inside Uzbekistan who are willing to criticise Karimov. A human rights advocate, Ikramov has been tortured, beaten up and imprisoned. These days, he says, he has a good relationship with the Uzbek secret police who sit outside his Soviet-built apartment block: ”Everyone is exhausted by this regime. Even they are,” he says, pointing to them.

Ikramov says he has declined several offers of asylum in the West. The chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, an NGO, he intends to carry on fighting the regime, he says.

”The problem is there are so few of us. But it’s not hard to explain why there are not more people struggling for democracy. People are afraid,” he says. – Guardian Unlimited Â