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A Nation Battles Its People

Uzbekistan harasses and tortures devout Muslims, say human rights advocates, who accuse the U.S. of going easy on a key Central Asian ally.


NAMANGAN, Uzbekistan — Bosit Ibragimov died Oct. 17 in his prison bed. Officials said the cause of death was heart failure. He was 32.

Family members who brought his emaciated body home have a hard time accepting the government version. They believe Ibragimov was starved and tortured to death because of his devotion to Islam.

Uzbekistan has become a prominent U.S. ally in the battle against terrorism. But in this former Soviet republic, combating terror has a different meaning.

For more than three years, the government has ruthlessly suppressed freedom of speech and religion on the grounds that the nation is threatened by Islamic extremists, including the shadowy Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Human rights activists estimate that the government has imprisoned 7,700 people solely for their religious or political beliefs. Court evidence is often fabricated, they say, and the accused are routinely tortured into confessing. On occasion, prisoners such as Ibragimov come home in a burial shroud.

"Uzbekistan's policy must be considered state terrorism against its own people," said Kudrat Rasulov, a pro-democracy activist here.

Although the United States has condemned human rights abuses in Uzbekistan and has worked to free individual prisoners, the war in neighboring Afghanistan has brought the American government and the former Soviet republic into alliance.

Of the six countries that ring Afghanistan, Uzbekistan has emerged as America's most dependable friend. Its autocratic president, Islam Karimov, has allowed the U.S. military to station at least 1,000 troops on a former Soviet military base near the country's southern border. From there, U.S. helicopters can reach Afghanistan for commando or search-and-rescue operations.

During the last five years, the two countries have quietly developed a close military partnership, including the training of Uzbek soldiers by U.S. Special Forces. But human rights activists worry that the Bush administration's need for Uzbek military help will stifle any move toward democracy. Support for Karimov's regime, they fear, will breed resentment toward America among the predominantly Muslim population.

Karimov, who has declared his willingness to shoot extremists himself, contends that his crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists is necessary to prevent a Taliban-style rebellion here.

In September, President Bush suggested a willingness to tolerate the Karimov government's approach to extremism when he singled out the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and elevated it to the top tier of international terrorist organizations.

Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network, Bush told Congress, "are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad [and] the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan."

But to human rights activists, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is hardly in the same league with Al Qaeda. It has few supporters at home, and most, if not all, of its members have fled to Afghanistan to join forces with the Taliban regime. There are no signs that the group has been active in Uzbekistan for more than a year.

"It was quite a surprise to see them held up as the same kind of danger as a group like Al Qaeda," said Acacia Shields, the Central Asia coordinator for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "I can read that only one way: a favor, a quid pro quo to the Uzbekistan government in return for military cooperation against Afghanistan."

Last week, the Bush administration again appeared to endorse Karimov's methods when the State Department declined to put Uzbekistan on a list of countries that engage in the persecution of religious believers. Human Rights Watch criticized the omission as a further concession to Washington's new military ally.

Before Sept. 11, few Americans could find Uzbekistan on a map. It sits at the center of a turbulent region, surrounded by troubled neighbors--Afghanistan as well as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

In the 1980s, Uzbekistan experienced a period of openness during the perestroika years of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. For the first time in decades, Uzbeks could openly practice religion. But the Gorbachev years turned out to be the peak of personal freedom.

When independence came with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan remained under the firm control of Karimov, the republic's Communist-era leader. He eliminated the democratic political opposition, took control of the media and, human rights activists say, gave the secret police a free hand to crush his rivals.

Many Uzbeks began to rediscover their religion as, in the absence of opposition parties, mosques became the focal point of dissent.

Here in the fertile Fergana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan, Islam is at its strongest and the crackdown on dissident believers has been harshest. The valley, Uzbekistan's most populous region, has long been considered the likely starting point for Islamic rebellion in Central Asia.

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