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Heavy Hand in Uzbekistan

August 04, 2004

Windows of opportunity don't stay open forever, something Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, seems not to understand. Last week's suicide bombing attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, should spur Karimov to allow peaceful public opposition to his regime and thereby deprive radical Islamists of a recruiting tool.

After Sept. 11, the ouster of the Taliban government of neighboring Afghanistan deprived the Karimov regime's Islamic opponents of shelter and support for their periodic armed forays into Uzbekistan. His cooperation with Washington, especially letting the United States use the Karshi Khanabad military base for regional operations, brought him hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic assistance.

The combination should have prompted Karimov to feel sufficiently secure to open the door to groups hoping to promote democracy in an authoritarian land. He should have allowed political parties to form and an independent legislature and judiciary to take shape. It's still not too late for those reforms.

More important, he should ease restrictions on mosques in a nation where 90% of the 25 million inhabitants are Muslims. That would give moderates the opportunity to worship with religious leaders they, not the government, choose, which would lessen the motivation to join underground Islamic groups that preach violence as the only option.

Karimov blamed Islamic fundamentalists for last week's nearly simultaneous attacks on the embassies and the prosecutor general's office in the capital. Tuesday's death of a police guard wounded at the U.S. Embassy raised the toll in the bombings to seven, including three assailants.

The president does face threats from radical Islamic groups, but his roundups of hundreds of suspects at a time, many of whom seem to have no link to terrorist organizations but might turn into political opponents, make matters worse. Karimov labels all his repressive moves parts of his "war on terror," but that's obviously not true. The lame excuse is a carry-over from Karimov's days as the Communist ruler when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic. He can't seem to change his authoritarian ways.

The State Department recognized Uzbekistan's appalling human rights record -- sweeping arrests, unexplained deaths in detention -- last month by announcing it might cut $18 million in aid to Tashkent. That should send a message to Karimov to shape up. An additional $37 million going to private organizations trying to build a basis for democracy and improve healthcare would not be affected. That's a worthwhile stick-and-carrot approach. Karimov should look at the records of repressive rulers who keep the lid on too tightly. Iran and the shah would be a good starting point.

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