Tue, May 27, 2003 - Page 5 News List

US money funding Uzbeki torture chambers

BELIEVE IT OR NOT The Bush administration, in its zeal to put an end to Islamists in the country, is providing aid to the remnants of communist-era Brezhnevism

THE GUARDIAN , NAMANGAN, UZBEKISTAN

Abdulkhalil was arrested in the fields of Uzbekistan's Ferghana valley in August last year. The 28-year-old farmer was sentenced to 16 years in prison for "trying to overthrow the constitutional structures."

Last week his father saw him for the first time since that day on a stretcher in a prison hospital. His head was battered and his tongue was so swollen that he could only say that he had "been kept in water for a long time."

Abdulkhalil was a victim of Uzbekistan's security service, the SNB. His detention and torture were part of a crackdown on Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an Islamist group.

Death by boiling

Independent human-rights groups estimate that there are more than 600 politically motivated arrests a year in Uzbekistan, and 6,500 political prisoners, some tortured to death. According to a forensic report commissioned by the British embassy, in August two prisoners were even boiled to death.

The US condemned this repression for many years. But since Sept. 11 rewrote America's strategic interests in central Asia, the government of President Islam Karimov has become Washington's new best friend in the region.

The US is funding those it once condemned. Last year Washington gave Uzbekistan US$500 million in aid. The police and intelligence services -- which the US Department of State's Web site says use "torture as a routine investigation technique" has received US$79 million of this sum.

Pact with US

Karimov was US President George W. Bush's guest in Washington in March last year. They signed a "declaration" which gave Uzbekistan security guarantees and promised to strengthen "the material and technical base of [their] law enforcement agencies."

The cooperation grows. On May 2 NATO said Uzbekistan may be used as a base for the alliance's peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

Since the fall of the Taliban, US support for the Karimov government has changed from one guided by short-term necessity into a long-term commitment based on America's strategic requirements.

Critics argue that the US has overlooked human rights abuses to foster a police state whose borders give the Pentagon vantage points into Afghanistan and the other neighboring republics which are as rich in natural resources as they are in Islamist movements.

The geographical hub of the US-Uzbek alliance is 350km south of the capital, Tashkent. Outside the town of Karshi lies the Khanabad military base, the platform for America's operations in Afghanistan.

The town of Khanabad has been closed for months by the Uzbek government. Locals say the restrictions are compensated for by the highly paid work the base brings.

Journalists are not allowed in to see its runway, logistical supply tents and troop lodgings, all set on roads named after New York avenues. One western source said: "[The Americans] expect to be here for over a decade."

This will suit the Uzbek government, which welcomes America's change in attitude as its own security forces continue to repress the population. Uzbeks need a permit to move between towns and an exit visa to leave the country. Attendance at a mosque seems to result in arrest.

In the city of Namangan, in the Ferghana valley, there are many accounts of the regime's brutality. A fortnight ago, Ahatkhon was beaten by police and held down while members of the Uzbek security service stuffed "incriminating evidence" into his coat pocket.

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