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BRUSSELS -- Top NATO and European Union officials met Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Brussels amid strong condemnation from nongovernmental organizations, who bemoan Tashkent’s woeful human rights record.
The Brussels visit is the first in years for the authoritarian leader and has dismayed rights groups, who say it marks his rehabilitation in the West.
Karimov met EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger, signing a memorandum on technical energy matters, as well as concluding an agreement to establish an EU delegation in Uzbekistan.
Barroso raised the issue of human rights, citing several individual cases of human rights defenders still imprisoned in the country.
He also raised the issue of the accreditation of the Human Rights Watch representative (HRW) in Tashkent and requested that Karimov allow an International Labor Organization (ILO) monitoring mission to address the issue of any remaining child-labor practices.
"The European Union follows a policy of critical, conditional, and comprehensive engagement with Uzbekistan," a statement from Barroso read. "I have raised all key concerns of Europe, notably regarding human rights and fundamental freedoms, which stand at the heart of EU foreign policy.
"I believe it is through such a robust eye-to-eye dialogue -- and not an empty-chair policy -- that we can further the EU's unanimously agreed policy of engagement most effectively."
Human rights groups have, however, been extremely critical of how the European Commission has handled Karimov’s visit.
The visit coincided with a Human Rights Watch report that criticized Western governments for being too soft on repressive regimes. The report said the EU’s "position on human rights in Uzbekistan remained disappointingly weak, with virtually no public expressions of concern about Uzbekistan’s deteriorating record."
Gregoire Thery of the International Federation for Human Rights says the EU lost its credibility after lifting its sanctions on Uzbek officials despite not obtaining an independent investigation into the 2005 Andijon massacre, in which hundreds of peaceful demonstrators lost their lives.
"The sanctions were imposed for a specific reason, it was the massacre of Andijon," Thery told RFE/RL. "There were a number of specific conditions to lift it and the EU lifted the sanctions despite that none of the conditions was met."
Karimov's visit drew a protest outside the European Commission headquarters this morning, where several prominent Uzbek human rights defenders, such as Nadejda Ataeva, also spoke up about the situation in their country.
"Islam Karimov's visit to Brussels gives us a reason to bring to the attention of the European public the practices of torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and reprisals [in Uzbekistan]," she said.
Mutabar Tadjibaeva, sentenced to eight years in prison for her outspoken criticism of the government over Andijon, said it was “shameful” that the EU was speaking to the Uzbek president, but hoped that the EU would be firm on human rights issues.
"I request the EU to demand from the Uzbek dictator to allow human rights activists in Uzbekistan to work openly and freely," Tadjibaeva told RFE/RL.
But others say dialogue, as exemplified by today's visit, can make a difference.
Inese Vaidere is a European parliament member from Latvia and a member of the parliament's EU-Uzbekistan delegation.
"If we ignore this country, we will not be able to change the situation," Vaidere says. "We should not forget the human rights situation, but there are other issues as well."
During his Brussels trip, Karimov is also meeting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Uzbekistan signed a treaty with the military alliance in 2009 about the transit of nonlethal equipment through the country to NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
During a press conference earlier in the day, Rasmussen said it was natural to meet with the leader of one of the alliance's partner countries. But he said that he, too, would raise the issue of human rights with the Uzbek president.
"Within our partnerships, we have a continuous dialogue with our partners, including a dialogue on democracy and human rights," he said, "and that will also be one of the topics for discussion."