Is Uzbekistan's Dictator Headed to Brussels?
Is Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov going to Brussels to meet with the Council of the European Union at the end of this month?
EurasiaNet has learned that the Uzbek leader's visit "was discussed" at the Council in December of last year, but European officials who spoke off the record this week have neither confirmed nor denied that the Uzbek leader is actually scheduled to visit later this month.
The Council is the main decision-making body of the European Union.
The Paris-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (Asie Centrale), a group of emigres from Uzbekistan, distributed a press release January 10 via e-mail citing "reliable sources" that Karimov's visit to Brussels is planned for January 31 -- the day after his 73rd birthday.
The human rights group says it is concerned that such a European reception could legitimize Karimov's dictatorship in Uzbekistan, where numerous critics have been harassed and jailed and both domestic and foreign human rights non-governmental organizations have been obstructed, closed, or expelled.
When government troops fired on demonstrators in Andijan in 2005, killing hundreds of people, the European Union at first imposed sanctions. But in 2008, these were lifted as Western politicians grew more concerned about energy security and also came to believe such punishment was ineffective. They said Tashkent was making small improvements, such as abolition of the death penalty.
In May 2010, the EU held a human rights dialogue discussing thematic issues like the rule of law but also mentioned human rights defenders, child labor in the cotton industry, and abusive prison conditions. At that time, Council officials said they raised a number of concerns about those affected by the Andijan events, as well as a number of individual cases -- without indicating the results, if any.
Meanwhile, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch have pushed harder to get the EU to have a tougher response to ongoing human rights concerns, and NGOs such as the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) have targeted EU companies that trade in Uzbek cotton and thus profit from child labor, by using the complaints procedure at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).
Asia Centrale is concerned that Karimov could be the first such dictator to receive an invitation to Brussels. In fact, Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, also viewed as a dictator, was warmly received in Brussels in 2008, although at that time, there was still expectation that he might make good on much-anticipated reforms (he didn't).
Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan for 21 years, apparently mindful of his age, recently changed the rules for succession, in a maneuver misunderstood as a move toward greater democracy.
If Karimov does go to Brussels, human rights groups are sure to raise issues such as the dozens of human rights activists, writers and journalists imprisoned for their work; the thousands of devout Muslims who continue to be jailed for practicing their faith outside of state-controlled bodies, and the torture in confinement that has led some to die.