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EU attacked over Uzbek president’s visit

20.01.2011 | www.ft.com
Isabel Gorst

The European Union is facing criticism from human rights organisations as it prepares to meet Islam Karimov, the dictatorial president of Uzbekistan, in Brussels next week.

The visit, following an EU decision last year to lift sanctions on Uzbekistan, marks a new stage in the rehabilitation of Mr Karimov who was castigated by the west for ordering a brutal police crackdown on a protest in the city of Andizhan in 2005.

On his first visit to the EU headquarters, the veteran Uzbek leader will meet José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, for talks on a wide range of issues including energy, trade, regional security and human rights, the EU said.

Mr Karimov will also visit Nato headquarters in Brussels to discuss Uzbek co-operation with the military alliance in Afghanistan.

His visit comes as the EU is debating whether to impose sanctions, including a travel ban, against another authoritarian leader, Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko.

The sanctions, which will be discussed by foreign ministers at a meeting later this month, would be a response to the Belarusian December election which was riddled with violence and irregularities.

Human rights organisations concerned about Mr Karimov’s trip slammed the EU for agreeing to host one of the world’s “most horrific dictators.”

Mr Karimov, a former Soviet communist party boss has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron hand for two decades, jailing and reportedly torturing his opponents.

“Uzbekistan is a serial embarrassment to the EU,” said Andrew Stroehlein, communications director at the International Crisis Group. “Imagine the outcry if Robert Mugabe or Kim Jong-il visited Brussels.”

Jacqueline Hale, political analyst at the Open Society Institute, said the Uzbek president’s visit to Brussels marked “a new and worrying phase in the rehabilitation of Karimov after Andizhan. The EU looks weak and it is not clear what it gets out of the meeting,” she said.

The EU, which is seeking to build closer ties with energy-rich central Asian nations, rejected criticism that it was turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. “We believe that a robust dialogue to press for improvements in human rights is a better approach than not talking to each other,” a spokesman for Mr Barroso said on Tuesday.

Uzbekistan has gained geostrategic importance since agreeing in 2009 to allow Nato convoys to use its territory as a bridgehead for non-lethal goods bound for Afghanistan, reducing the military alliance’s dependence on routes through Pakistan that are frequently attacked by rebels.

Political experts said Mr Karimov had skilfully manipulated western opinion since last June when he allowed ethnic Uzbeks fleeing racial violence in south Kyrgyzstan to take refuge in Uzbekistan preventing the conflict from escalating.

Several non-government organisations planned to hold rallies to protest against Uzbek human rights abuses in Brussels during Mr Karimov’s visit, but were refused permission by Belgian police.

“It appears that there is an official effort to down play Karimov’s visit,” said Michael Laubsch, executive director of the Eurasian Transition Group.

Additional reporting by Joshua Chaffin in Brussels

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