Mon, Dec 27, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Uzbekistan poll draws few voters

AP , TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN

A mere trickle of voters showed up at polling stations in Uzbekistan's capital yesterday in an election from which all opposition groups are barred.

The vote caps a year of growing public discontent over the lack of freedoms in this former Soviet republic, and a series of deadly attacks blamed on radical Islamic groups here.

Opposition Banned

None of this Central Asian country's four small opposition groups can take part in the race. They said authorities rejected their requests to officially register, in order to keep them out of parliament.

All opposition-nominated independent candidates were also turned down, leaving only five legal parties -- all loyal to President Islam Karimov.

Some opposition parties have urged voters to boycott the elections. One, the Birlik party, said citizens should vote against all candidates on the ballot.

The few voters who turned up yesterday in the first few hours of polling in the capital, Tashkent, expressed cynicism about the election.

"Probably my vote will not decide anything," said one voter, Andrei Burdin.

Another, Gennadiy Stepanov, said he did not choose any candidate on the ballot because "my vote won't change anything."

Uzbekistan has just over 14 million eligible voters.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent 21 observers to monitor the poll's compliance with its standards for democratic elections.

The OSCE warned on Saturday against attempts to use its presence as a way to legitimize the vote, which it has already described as lacking fairness. The group is expected to release a preliminary report on the election Monday.

This predominantly Muslim nation, a key US ally in the war on terror, has since 2001 been hosting hundreds of US troops near its border with Afghanistan.

However, the US cut aid to the country this year due to a lack of progress on democratic and economic reforms.

Human Rights Concerns

Karimov, a former Communist boss, has ruled this nation with an iron fist since 1989, and has drawn international criticism for his government's poor human rights record.

A UN envoy found after a visit in 2002 that torture was systematic in Uzbek jails. Rights groups say up to 6,000 dissident Muslims are jailed here for alleged religious extremism.

Earlier this year, more than 50 people died in suicide bomb attacks and other assaults aimed at police, the general prosecutor's office and the embassies of Israel and the US.

The attacks were blamed on Islamic extremists. But critics say the violence was triggered by government persecution of Muslims who practice their faith outside state-run mosques.

Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation, is also one of the region's poorest and is widely viewed as having a poor business climate.

Public protests are rare in this country, where police and security personnel have extensive powers. But last month it saw unprecedented large demonstrations against new trade restrictions, raising fears of further outbreaks of public discontent.

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