Louise Arbour, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group writes in Foreign Policy that Central Asia may be in a list of "Next Year's Wars." Tajikistan faces both local and external insurgencies with little ability to cope with them, and relations with neighboring Uzbekistan have deteriorated over water and transport disputes, punctuated by occasional deadly border incidents, notes The Bug Pit.
Added to the risk of conflict is the presence of the Uzbek ethnic minority in another neighbor, Kyrgyzstan, already the scene of ethnic clashes in 2010, killing more than 400 people and wounding thousands. The Tajik independent news service Asia Plus says Uzbekistan is building up its tanks on the Tajik border near the enclave of Sughd, following a shoot-out where one border guard was recently killed. This sort of skirmish has become common in recent years along Uzbekistan's borders. Tashkent has escalated its ongoing conflicts with Tajikistan by halting gas deliveries this week after a contract lapsed and the countries failed to find an agreement on prices, Asia Plus reported.
Arbour identifies Uzbekistan’s close relationship with the US as another factor in predicting possible conflict, evidently because the US is now dependent on Uzbekistan for a large percent of the transit of supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. "Washington increasingly relies on Tashkent for logistics in Afghanistan, but the brutal nature of the regime means it is not only an embarrassing partner but also, ultimately, a very unreliable one,” says Arbour.
Just how dependent the US has become is a matter of debate. An estimated 70 percent of cargo transiting the NDN enters at Uzbekistan’s Hairaton Gate, but some experts say that figure is too low. A Pentagon official recently testified in Congress that the figure has risen to 98 percent due to Pakistan's cut-off of US and NATO transit. In addition to rail, there are also overland routes through Tajikistan. But the overlooked story may be that Kazakhstan, through which all routes must pass, is the real gate-keeper, says The Bug Pit.
Even so, attention has focused on Uzbekistan, as difficulties with the line have emerged. An explosion that knocked out a rail bridge in November did not affect the NDN directly, but it halted cargo to Tajikistan and may have been deliberately caused to retaliate against Tajikistan for its plans to build the Roghun hydroelectric dam or even hinder Dushanbe from participating in the NDN. The delays to Tajikistan follow years of freight already stalled at other stations despite constant efforts by Dushanbe. The train stock itself has also been come under more intense scrutiny after a rail accident last fall. A much-vaunted new high-speed train from Tashkent to Samarkand, named Afrosiyob for a mythical king who united the region, was inexplicably closed after only a few weeks’ run, EurasiaNet reports.
Afghanistan opened its first-ever train route on December 21 with an inaugural 47-mile trip from the Uzbek border to Mazar-i-Sharif, The Telegraph reported.
A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the institutionalization of torture under President Islam Karimov’s administration. The 104-page HRW report – titled "No One Left to Witness: Torture, the Failure of Habeas Corpus and the Silencing of Lawyers in Uzbekistan” – describes how the dismantling of the independent bar and impunity for rampant torture have made Uzbekistan’s human rights situation so devastating,
HRW was expelled from Tashkent in March for its critical reporting, but for a time, Steve Swerdlow, HRW’s Uzbekistan researcher, was able to remain in the country and interviewed hundreds of people for the report, documenting cruel practices such as clubbing and burning detainees. Such cases have already captured global headlines, making Uzbekistan’s dictator President Islam Karimov infamous. Less visible has been the reason why this could happen despite the regime’s much-trumpeted legal reforms: intimidation of the very people who try to help victims, the independent lawyers of Uzbekistan. Under greater government pressure now, fewer lawyers are willing to spend days in prosecutors’ waiting rooms or detention centers, just trying to see their clients – only to discover they have been mistreated or have disappeared into the system.
As the Ministry of Justice consolidated control over the bar, several prominent attorneys were disbarred, and other outspoken advocates lost their licenses through apparently fabricated criminal cases, or through other forms of harassment, says HRW, Hundreds of lawyers simply refused to take the bar exam; “they knew their fate beforehand and did not want to serve in a profession that increasingly serves the state,” says Swerdlow.
HRW characterizes the high incidence of brutal treatment in Uzbekistan's prisons as an “epidemic,” and recounts grisly practices such as immersion in boiling water, dousing with freezing water, beatings with rubber clubs and water-filled bottles, hanging by the wrists and ankles, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, and rape and sexual humiliation. Defense attorneys have tried to mitigate the plight of people enduring such horrors, but now they themselves are increasingly harassed or disbarred.
"The government doesn't want lawyers who will make a fuss about human rights. They want ones who will close their eyes to bogus charges or procedural violations," Ruhiddin Komilov, a Tashkent lawyer disbarred in November 2010, told HRW.
It often seems as if the constant condemnation of the Uzbek regime for these outrages has no effect. Yet the authorities do take note and sometimes respond indirectly. Choihona reports. In November, an Interior Ministry official admitted in a parliamentary hearing that a female prisoner, the daughter of another Interior Minister official, had been beaten and raped in prison, Radio Ozodlik reported. She was ultimately released. In a separate case, the Uzbek prosecutor investigated the complaint of Rayhon Soatova that she was raped by policemen in pretrial detention after she gave birth prematurely in prison. While ultimately no conclusive evidence could be established through DNA testing, officials did tacitly concede the rape took place and moved Soatova to a lighter regimen.
Human rights activists attribute the concessions on these cases to petitions from local and international groups and the United Nations; Uzbekistan was reviewed by the UN Committee Against Torture and responded to concerns about the Soatova case. The amelioration in these particular cases consisted of small gestures, but they came as a combination of both victims and their defenders willing to speak out despite the risks involved and the seeming indifference of the Uzbek regime. The outspokenness on such cases “proves the value of challenging the Uzbek government more openly." Swerdlow told EurasiaNet.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.