Dictator of the Month: Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan
Monday, October 24, 2011
This month’s Dictator of the Month award to Islam Karimov is given in honor of Herman Cain’s complete lack of awareness of Uzbekistan and the important controversy regarding President Barack Obama’s decision to lift sanctions against Karimov despite his continued human rights abuses. In an interview with David Brody of The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) on October 7, Cain explained how he would defend himself against “gotcha questions” by saying, “When they ask me who’s the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Do you know?’ And then I’m going to say, ‘how’s that going to create one job?’”
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Karimov allowed U.S. troops to use an air base in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan. However, in 2004, the administration of President George W. Bush halted military aid to Uzbekistan as punishment for Karimov’s escalating human rights violations. The following year Karimov kicked out the Americans after they criticized his massacre of civilians. Eventually, U.S. troops were allowed to trickle back in. Now, as U.S. relations with Pakistan deteriorate, the Obama administration is looking for other possible friends in the region to help supply American troops in Afghanistan. On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Uzbekistan and met with Islam Karimov, thanking him for his support of U.S. troops.
In my book Tyrants: The World's 20 Worst Living Dictators, I included a chapter about Karimov. Here is an updated version of that chapter.
THE NATION—The most populous country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan was of little interest to the outside world until, in the days following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States was attracted to its 85-mile border with Afghanistan.
Although 80% of the population of 26 million are Uzbeks, there are significant minorities of Russians and Tajiks. Uzbeks themselves also live in neighboring countries, such as Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, where they make up 13% of the population, and Tajikistan, where they account for almost a quarter of the population There are also two million Uzbeks in Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan is a weirdly shaped nation, the product of the Stalinist equivalent of gerrymandering. In fact, there are four parts of Uzbekistan that are surrounded on all sides by Kyrgyzstan. Besides the capital of Tashkent, Uzbekistan includes the ancient Silk Route cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, part of the ecologically ruined Aral Sea and, in the east, most of the densely populated and politically volatile Fergana Valley.
Most Uzbeks are Sunni Muslims and 99% are literate. Uzbekistan is the world’s second-largest exporter of cotton (behind the United States), and it is one of the only nations in the world that is self-sufficient in oil.
HISTORY—Samarkand was founded at least 2,500 years ago. The area that is now Uzbekistan was conquered by Darius the Great of Persia and, in 328 BC, by Alexander the Great. Islamic Arabs took over in the 8th century AD and Genghis Khan ruled the region in the 13th century. In the 1380s, another conqueror, Tamerlane, gained control and established the headquarters of his empire in Samarkand, which he turned into a cultural center as well. When Uzbekistan gained its independence 600 years later, the new government, headed by Islam Karimov, found itself short of historical heroes and chose to exalt Tamerlane (known locally as Amur Timur). Although Karimov’s supporters would characterize Tamerlane as a kind, well-educated and devout Muslim, among historians he is better known as a brutal tyrant who killed millions of people, ordered his troops to launch severed heads at cities they were attacking, and left behind pyramids made of skulls as a warning, including a pile of 90,000 in Baghdad alone.
Uzbek nomads did not appear in present-day Uzbekistan until the Shaybani Uzbeks invaded from the north in 1501. By 1510, they had completed their conquest of Central Asia. The Persians invaded again in the 18th century, but it was the next group of invaders who would shape modern Uzbekistan.
THE RUSSIANS RUSH IN—While Central Asian warlords were preoccupied with fighting each other, Europeans were beginning to show an interest in their region. To the south, British forces were conquering Afghanistan, while Russian merchants and settlers from the north moved into Uzbek territory. Once Russian troops completed their conquest of the Caucasus Mountains in the 1850s, the Russian government began turning its focus onto Central Asia, particularly when the civil war in the United States disrupted their supply of cotton. In 1864, Russian forces began attacking the khanates that ruled the Uzbek people. Tashkent fell in 1865, Bukhara in 1867, Samarkand in 1868, Khiva in 1873, and, finally, Kokand in 1876, thus completing the Russian takeover of present-day Uzbekistan. By the turn of the century, the Russian railway system had extended into the area, which was now under the control of the Ministry of War. During World War I, Central Asians were exempt from military conscription. When the Russian government cancelled this exemption in the summer of 1916, violent demonstrations broke out in the eastern Uzbek territory.
COMMUNISM—While the Bolsheviks were fighting to take over the Russian Empire and to establish the USSR, they actively excluded Muslims from positions of power. When the local people set up their own government in Kokand in the Fergana Valley, the Red Army dismantled it. They also put down a revolt after the Russian Civil War ended, eventually conquering Khiva and Bokhara in 1920. In 1924, the Soviet government created the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic, which also encompassed ethnic Tajik regions. In 1929, the Tajiks were given their own republic, leaving behind the borders of present-day Uzbekistan.
Communist rule had its good points, such as the spread of literacy and the emancipation of women, but for the most part, the effects were overwhelmingly negative. In a land of farmers, agriculture was collectivized. Josef Stalin decided that the purpose of the Uzbek SSR was to provide cotton, and the Soviet machine forced the Uzbeks to stop growing food crops and replant their land with cotton. In the post-Stalinist era, it was the diversion of rivers that fed the Aral Sea that caused its destruction. Since 1960, the Aral has lost 90% of its water and the water level has dropped more than fifty feet. The Soviet reliance on Uzbek cotton led to one of the great scandals of the Communist period. Faced with unrealistically high cotton quotas, Sharaf Rashidov, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan from 1959 until 1982, colluded with high central government officials to falsify production figures. When this long-lasting scam was finally exposed, the name Uzbekistan became synonymous with corruption, and Rashidov was posthumously viewed as a hero by the Uzbek people.
Stalin, suspicious of non-Russians in the USSR, arrested and executed all Uzbek nationalists in the 1930s. When the power of the Communist Party started to break down in the 1980s, a careful opposition developed in Uzbekistan. A group of intellectuals, Birlik (Unity), advocated saving the Aral Sea, diversifying agriculture, and making Uzbek the state language. When ethnic fighting broke out in the Fergana Valley in 1989, the national government chose an Uzbek from a different part of the republic to be first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan. His name was Islam Karimov.
THE BOSS—Islam Abduganivich Karimov was born in Samarkand on January 30, 1938. It would appear that his father was an Uzbek and his mother a Tajik; however, the details of his childhood are foggy. For example, his most recent official biographies state that his father was an office worker, but that he was raised in an orphanage. However, a 1995 biography, also authorized, claimed that he grew up in a poor family, the sixth of seven children, and that his father was a day laborer and his mother a housewife. At any rate, Karimov did study mechanical engineering at the Central Asian Polytechnic Institute before moving on to the Tashkent Institute of National Economics, where it took him three tries to pass the bookkeeping exam.
Karimov began his work career as an assistant foreman and technologist foreman at the Tashkent Farm Machinery Plant. Then he became an engineer at the Chkalov Tashkent Aircraft-Making Plant, which manufactured cargo planes for the USSR. In 1966, Karimov settled in at Gosplan, the state planning committee, gradually moving up the bureaucratic ladder from senior scientific specialist to first deputy. Karimov was appointed Finance Minister of Uzbekistan in 1983. In 1986, his patience with the Communist system paid off, as he gained the positions of Chairman of the State Planning Committee, Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Republic, and First Secretary of the Kashkodar Section of the Communist Party. In 1989 he was promoted to First Secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party Central Committee and, in March 1990, the Uzbek parliament elected Karimov president of the republic.
Karimov is married to Tatyana Akbarovna, formally a researcher at the Institute of Economics at the Uzbekistan Academy of Sciences. The couple has two daughters, one of whom, Gulnara, later developed a power base of her own. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2004, Gulnara’s husband (by then ex-husband), Mansur Maqsudi, provided a rare insight into Karimov’s private personality. “When you argued with him,” explained Maqsudi, “the loudest would win the argument. It wasn’t about facts; it wasn’t about arguments. It was about who could shout the loudest.” Maqsudi also described an office next to Islam and Tatyana’s bedroom that included a five-foot-tall safe. One day, according to Maqsudi, he passed by the office and saw Mrs. Karimov sitting on the floor in front of the safe counting cash.
TAKING POWER—Karimov was fortunate to be the leader of Uzbekistan at the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. He sat on the fence during the August 1991 putsch that tried to restore Communism. When it failed, the Supreme Soviet of Uzbekistan declared independence on August 31. Karimov banned all activity by the Communist Party. However, two months after independence, he changed the name of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan to the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, allowing all the people who had ruled the republic under Communism to remain in power.
Islam Karimov prides himself on being an intellectual and he has written numerous boring and pretentious works on economics. Upon finding himself the president of an independent nation, he was indeed wise enough to identify the forces that were most likely to threaten his goal of holding on to power as long as he wanted. These forces were (1) Russia (2) the secular opposition, and (3) the Islamic opposition.
Even before independence, Karimov pushed through four laws that squelched potential critics of his regime. The Law on Protecting the Honor and Dignity of the President outlawed criticism of Karimov. The Law on Public Associations in the Uzbek SSR limited the right to register organizations, including NGOs. The law on Mass Media squashed free speech, and the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Opposition barred opposition groups from appearing in state media.
As if these laws did not adequately set the tone for Karimov’s reign, the new constitution that went into effect in December 1992 closed a few more potentially democratic loopholes. Among other provisions, it allowed Karimov to appoint and dismiss all judges, and it gave him the right to dissolve parliament in case of “insurmountable difficulties” between parliamentary deputies and the president. For good measure, it also abolished the office of vice president, lest any individual achieve a position that could challenge Karimov. Finally, the constitution gave Karimov the right to appoint and dismiss all regional administrators, known as hakims. Traditionally, local affairs, such as family disputes and real estate transactions, were overseen by councils of elders, called mahallas. The Communists had inserted their own appointees, the hakims, to deal with the mahallas. By taking charge of the appointment of all hakims, Karimov extended his personal power down to the most local levels, while at the same time appearing to align himself with the traditional elders. In addition, the new constitution allowed the hakims the right to nominate 45% of the members of the parliament (the Oly Majlis), which meant that instantly Karimov chose almost half of the members of the legislature.
THE SECULAR OPPOSITION—Before full independence was achieved, two non-Communist parties emerged in Uzbekistan. Birlik was created in 1988 and the Erk (Freedom) Democratic Party in 1990. Since both concentrated on promoting Uzbek culture and the Uzbek language, Karimov responded to their growth by giving a series of public lectures on “The Uzbek Way.” Weak as Birik and Erk were, Karimov decided to take no chances with them. In 1993 he banned both parties and arrested their leaders, charging them with “conspiracy to overthrow the elected government” and “defaming the honor of President Karimov.” It would be another ten years before Karimov felt sufficiently unthreatened by Birlik and Erk to allow them to hold party congresses. In the meantime, in order to appease international opinion, Karimov grudgingly allowed the formation of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU). Unfortunately, Karimov’s true attitude toward this group was starkly revealed by an incident that took place in the summer of 2000. Tajik herdsmen in Surkhandarya Province informed troops of the Uzbek army that Islamist guerrillas had moved into their mountain grazing lands. Instead of praising the herdsmen for this tip, Karimov’s government accused them of aiding the guerrillas and drove them out of their homes, causing some to die of cold and hunger. One of the herdsmen, Khazratul Kodirov, gave an interview to BBC World Service in which he described the displacement of his people. The Uzbek army seized Kodirov, tortured him, and killed him. The HRSU representative in charge of monitoring the case, Shovriq Ruzimorodov, died in police custody July 7, 2001. The following year the chairman of the HRSU, Yoldash Rasulev, was convicted of “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional order,” although Karimov graciously pardoned him for his non-crime a few months later.
ELECTIONS—Having become the ruler of an independent nation as the result widespread international support for the spread of freedom and democracy, Karimov was well aware of the symbolic importance of direct elections. In December 1991, he ran for president against poet Muhammad Solih, founder of the Erk Party. Karimov won 86% of the vote and gained what was supposed to be a five-year term. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for 1994 and this time Karimov faced the international expectation of a multiparty election. Not to worry. Karimov simply created some new parties, ordered various supporters to join them, and then arranged for the vote to take place. Since his party only won a minority of the seats, Karimov was able to brag to other countries that he ran a democracy, which, of course, ignored the fact that he controlled every seat in the parliament. Karimov’s term as president was due to end in December 1991, but nine months earlier he staged a referendum that extended his term until 2000. The year 1999 saw another parliamentary election in which all parties pledged their loyalty to Karimov. Karimov himself was reelected president in January 2000. He gained more than 90% of the votes, which was not surprising considering that his opponent Abduhafez Jalalov, publicly announced that even he had voted for Karimov. Two years later, another referendum extended his term until 2007. By the time of the next parliamentary election on December 26, 2004, international tolerance of Karimov’s electoral shenanigans was wearing thin. Taking no chances, Karimov refused to register legitimate opposition parties and banned independent observers from all polling places.
THE ISLAMIC OPPOSITION—The success of the Afghan mujahedin in driving Soviet troops out of their country in 1989 brought great pride to those Uzbeks who felt themselves more Muslim than Communist, and especially so because fighters of Afghanistan’s Uzbek minority had actively contributed to the victory. As the USSR began to fall apart, Muslim missionaries rushed into Uzbekistan from Pakistan, Egypt and, especially, Saudi Arabia. In 1989 there were 170 mosques in Uzbekistan, all of them registered with the government. By 1995, there were approximately 5,000 mosques, almost half of which belonged to unregistered congregations, whose members came to be known as “independent Muslims.”
The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) held its founding congress in January 1991. Since Uzbek law prohibited parties based on religion, its leaders were arrested. The IRP’s prime mover, Haji Abdullah Otaev, disappeared in late 1992, never to be seen again, and the IRP never recovered.
Karimov was keenly aware that most Uzbeks viewed the revival of Islam with pride and enthusiasm, and he weaved together this pride with a sense of nationalism and tried to present himself as its symbol. During the December 1991 presidential campaign, Karimov, who had spent twenty-five years as a Communist Party bureaucrat and leader, exclaimed, “Islam is the conscience, the essence of life, the very life of our countrymen.” He also placed his hand on the Quran when he was sworn in as president, and he peppered his speeches with phrases like “Allah’s wishes.”
Meanwhile, in the town of Namangan in the Fergana Valley, two men, Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldosh, acquired Saudi funding to build a mosque. Namangani (born Juma Khojoev) had been conscripted into the Soviet army in 1987 and served as a paratrooper in Afghanistan. While there, he gained respect for the mujahedin, both as soldiers and for their Islamic activism. Yuldosh, an unofficial mullah, was the leader of the Adolat (Justice) Party, which professed a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran. In a rare interview with Voice of America in 1998, Yuldosh explained, “We want the model of Islam that has remained from The Prophet, not the Islam in Afghanistan or Iran or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.”
When the pre-independence mayor of Namangan refused to issue a construction permit for the Saudi-financed mosque, Islamic idealism and political discontent fused. Unemployed youth seized the office of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan and set up a crude version of Islamic rule in the town. Karimov was so preoccupied with the upheaval in the USSR that he had no choice but to tolerate this development for the time being. Finally, in April 1991, he paid a visit to Namangan, presumably to show his support for the revival of Islam. But, unexpectedly, he found himself forced to sit quietly while Tahir Yuldosh lectured him and demanded, among other things, that Karimov turn Uzbekistan into an Islamic state in which mosque attendance would be compulsory. Karimov gritted his way through this display of disrespect for his authority, but back in Tashkent he unleashed his fury, ordering mass arrests in Namangan. The following year, Karimov banned the Adolat Party and imprisoned its leaders.
Juma Namangani slipped across the border into Tajikistan and joined the Islamic opposition forces fighting in what would develop into that nation’s five-year civil war. Islam Karimov had a different reaction to the war in Tajikistan. He offered military hardware to the anti-Islamist forces and ordered Uzbek jets to bomb opposition strongholds.
The sense of alarm that Karimov felt about Islamists holding their own in the war in Tajikistan was exacerbated in September 1996 when the government of another of Uzbekistan’s neighbors, Afghanistan, fell to the forces of the radical Islamist Taliban. What was worse, the Taliban forces, after taking Kabul, pushed north into areas occupied by ethnic Uzbeks, where they clashed with Uzbek fighters led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum and drove them out of the city of Mazar-e Sharif into Turkey. Dostum recaptured the city the following year. If the aggressive behavior of Islamist armies on his borders unnerved Karimov, he was still able to use the fighting in Afghanistan for his own purposes. “While war is in progress there,” he commented in April 2000, “how can we seriously engage in matters of renovation and democratic transformation?”
Back in Uzbekistan, Karimov was already engaged in a campaign against Islamic religious leaders. In August 1995, Sheikh Abduwahi Mirzoev, the chief prayer leader of the city of Andijan in the Fergana Valley, disappeared on a flight from Tashkent to Moscow, the first of several religious leaders to vanish over the next three years.
In Namangan, on December 2, 1997, anti-Karimov activists beheaded an Uzbek army captain and displayed his head outside his office. In the following two and a half weeks, a former collective farm chairman and his wife were beheaded and three policemen were killed in a shoot-out. Government forces responded by arresting more than 1000 people.
THE VIOLENT ISLAMIST OPPOSITION—In 1998, Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldosh came together again and formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and called for the resignation of the Karimov government. While fighting in Tajikistan, Namangani, who was again receiving Saudi funding, established a military camp in Tavildara. After the formation of the IMU, Namangani would use the camp against Karimov. By this time, Namangani had acquired a reputation as a heroic guerrilla leader, sort of an Islamic Che Guevara.
On February 16, 1999, six bombs went off in Tashkent, killing 19 people and wounding 128. Not surprisingly, Karimov blamed the IMU, although he did take the opportunity to also blame his former presidential opponent, Muhammad Solih, and to sentence him to death in absentia. Five weeks after the Tashkent bombing, Karimov threatened to arrest any father whose son joined the IMU.
In August, a Namangani unit raided villages in Kyrgyzstan and exchanged hostages for ransom. Outraged, Karimov bombed IMU villages in Kyrgyzstan, killing civilians in the process. On another raid, the IMU took four Japanese geologists hostage and demanded the release of political prisoners. The geologists were freed five weeks later amid rumors that the Japanese government had paid the IMU $2 million.
During the year 2000, the IMU killed at least twenty-four Uzbek soldiers and launched a particularly audacious attack on the Uzbek army only eighty miles north of Tashkent. During the winter of 2000-2001, Karimov cut off gas supplies to the capitals of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in order to pressure the governments of those two countries to crack down on IMU bases. He also lined the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with mines and barbed wire.
THE NONVIOLENT ISLAMIC OPPOSITION—In addition to the IMU, Karimov cracked down on another group, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), commonly known as HT, whose aim was to restore Islamic rule in all Muslim lands. Unlike the IMU, the HT supported democracy and opposed religious wars, ethnic favoritism, and discrimination against women. None of this stopped Karimov from convicting twenty-two HT members in connection with the Tashkent bombings and, despite the lack of any evidence, sentencing six of them to death. For the record, although the HT has never been connected to an act of violence, they do make one exception to their prohibition against killing. According to HT doctrine, violence is allowed in conflicts already under way in which Muslims are fighting oppressors. Specifically, they approve of Palestinians killing Israelis. In fact, one of the insults used by HT leaders against Karimov was to call him “a Jew.”
RELATIONS WITH THE UNITED STATES—From the very beginning of his reign as the dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov was almost obsessively pro-American. In no way did he admire or agree with American values. Rather, he saw the United States as a counterweight to the Russian behemoth to his north, which he feared would recapture Uzbekistan or, at the very least, enslave it economically.
For its first decade of independence, Uzbekistan voted with the United States on almost every issue at the United Nations, even when it dealt with Israel and Palestine. In 1992, Uzbekistan became the first Central Asian nation to recognize Israel and, in 1998, Karimov actually visited the Jewish state. Karimov supported President Clinton’s 1995 trade embargo of Iran, and that same year U.S. and Uzbek forces engaged in their first joint military exercise. At the same time, a U.S. company, Newmont Mining, began processing low-grade stockpiles of gold in Uzbekistan. Starting in 1997, trade between the U.S. and Uzbekistan jumped from $50 million a year to $420 million. Newmont wasn’t the only American company interested in Uzbekistan. In his introduction to the U.S. edition of his book Uzbekistan: Along the Road of Deepening Economic Reform (published in Houston), Karimov bragged about establishing a joint venture with Enron to prospect, explore, and develop gas fields. At the urging of Enron head Ken Lay, the then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, met with the Uzbek ambassador to the United States. The deal, like so many of Enron’s plans, fell through.
In June 1996, Karimov paid his first visit to Washington, D.C. President Clinton felt uneasy about Karimov’s already appalling human rights record, but agreed to meet with Karimov if the Uzbek leader pledged to release eighty-nine political prisoners. Karimov agreed to the deal, although, in the end, only five of the prisoners were actually confirmed to have been released. If Karimov received a cool reception at the White House, he was greeted more enthusiastically at the Pentagon, where William Perry, the secretary of defense, praised Uzbekistan as “an island of stability.” This tension between Uzbekistan’s economic and geopolitical value on the one hand and its embarrassing record of human rights abuses on the other has colored U.S.-Uzbek relations ever since.
In September 2000, the Clinton administration declared the IMU a terrorist group, citing its connection with Osama bin Laden, its involvement in the drug trade, the killing of civilians, and its kidnapping of four American mountain climbers (who later escaped). This declaration delighted Karimov. However, five months later, the U.S. State Department lambasted Karimov’s government for torturing prisoners by beating them with blunt objects and asphyxiating them with gas masks.
9/11: A DREAM COME TRUE—On September 11, 2001, Islamist terrorists using hijacked airplanes killed almost 3,000 people in the United States. This tragic event saddened people around the world. But for Islam Karimov, it was a stroke of luck beyond his wildest dreams. He was in the midst of an armed struggle with the al-Qaeda-affiliated IMU and feeling the pressure of the Taliban on his doorstep. For years he had been groveling for U.S. support and all he got in return was Enron, a couple of joint military exercises, and a lot of complaints and lectures about human rights and democracy. Suddenly, literally overnight, the administration of now-U.S. president George W. Bush was his new best friend. High-ranking American officials streamed into Tashkent and offered him money and friendship. U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld made multiple visits to Karimov without saying a word about nasty subjects like torture and human rights. Secretary of State Colin Powell assured the world that “President Karimov wants to bring through a new generation that understands democracy.” Powell was as wrong about that one as he would later be about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. Others saw right through Karimov. Reacting to Powell’s meeting, the Washington Post editorialized that the Bush administration was sending the message that “If you play ball with the United States in Afghanistan we will look the other way as a decade of democratization efforts is ground to dust.”
Within two weeks of 9/11, 200 U.S. soldiers had already arrived in Uzbekistan and Karimov turned over his military base in Khanabad to the United States. The Americans rushed military supplies to Uzbek General Dostum and then began bombing Afghanistan. The Taliban was driven from power and the IMU was destroyed. Juma Namangani was reportedly killed during the U.S. bombing of Mazar-e Sharif in November. For Karimov, the defeat of his Islamist enemies was cause for celebration, but he was to reap even more benefits in the aftermath of 9/11. The number of U.S. forces in Uzbekistan would eventually surpass 5,000. As the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta lamented, “The arrival of every American soldier in Uzbekistan chips away at Russia’s influence in the region.” This was exactly what Karimov had hoped for. The Islamist guerrilla forces were gone and Russia’s influence was diminished. And yet there was even more good news for Karimov. In one year, U.S. aid to Uzbekistan jumped from $85 million to $300 million, some of it, no doubt, ending up in that safe next to Karimov’s bedroom. And when President Bush painted his War on Terrorism as a battle between good and evil, he could have taken his words directly from one of Karimov’s speeches, since that was exactly how Karimov had been portraying his fight against the IMU. Now it was easy to read the Americans. Instantly, Karimov discovered previously hidden links between all of his opponents and Osama bin Laden, and even members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were arrested for having alleged connections with al-Qaeda.
Dozens of members of the U.S. Congress visited Karimov in Tashkent and in March 2002, Karimov had tea in the White House with President Bush. As late as 2004, some members of Congress were so gullible or self-deluding that they continued to praise Karimov. For example, during a visit to Tashkent in March of that year, Representative David Dreier of California gushed that he was “very encouraged from the reports that we have been seeing in the area of human rights.” In the executive branch, confusion reigned. In July 2004, the State Department declared that Uzbekistan’s human rights record was so poor that it cut off the $18 million in aid it was supposed to receive. The following month, however, the Department of Defense pledged $21 million in assistance to the Uzbek military.
THE UZBEK PRINCESS—At her nineteenth birthday party in Tashkent, Islam Karimov’s elder daughter, Gulnara, met a twenty-four-year-old Afghan-American from New Jersey named Mansur Maqsudi. The couple met one more time and then married in November 1991. They celebrated one wedding in Tashkent and then another in New Jersey. Maqsudi was given the post of manager in Uzbekistan’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, as well as part ownership of the business, and the couple had two children. Nonetheless, the marriage was a rocky one. Mansur was particularly concerned about Gulnara’s spending habits. During a visit to London, she wanted to buy $230,000 worth of jewelry. When Mansur refused to pay for it, Gulnara reached into her bag and purchased the jewelry with cash that her mother had given her.
One day in July 2001, Gulnara, accompanied by her bodyguards, took her son Islam and her daughter Imam, to the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey. But when she tried to pay for their tickets, she discovered that her husband had cancelled her credit cards. Back home, the couple got into a shouting match that continued until her bodyguards intervened. The next day, Gulnara left Mansur a note suggesting that he watch the 1989 film The War of the Roses, about an ugly divorce. Then she took the kids and returned to Uzbekistan. Mansur never saw his children again. An Uzbek judge granted Gulnara a divorce and a New Jersey judge gave one to Mansur. Because arrest warrants were filed with Interpol for each of them, neither was able to travel to Europe. In Tashkent, security forces raided the homes of Mansur’s family; took twenty-four of his relatives at gunpoint, including an eighty-five-year-old grandmother who was an Uzbek citizen; drove them thirteen hours to the Afghan border, and dumped them on the other side. The Uzbek government seized Mansur’s share of the Coca-Cola bottling plant and claimed that he owed $9 million in back taxes. Gulnara, on the other hand, came away from the divorce with 20% of Uzbekistan’s wireless telephone company (worth $15 million), a $13 million Uzbek resort, $11 million in bank and investment holdings in Geneva and Dubai, a $10 million retail complex, a recording studio and spa worth $5.5 million, Tashkent nightclubs worth $4 million, a house in Tashkent, and $4 million worth of jewelry.
Gulnara eventually wormed her way into American high society. In September 2011, she was scheduled to present a collection as part of New York’s Fashion Week. However, as complaints about her father’s human rights abuses resurfaced (although not in the world of Herman Cain), IMG, the company that presents the event, cancelled her show.
Karimov’s younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillayeva, is Uzbekistan’s envoy to UNESCO. In May 2011, she sued a French news website, Rue89, for libel because they referred to her father as a “dictator.”
HUMAN RIGHTS…FOR ONE HUMAN—In 2003, Karimov ordered the parliament to pass a law that made him and all members of his family immune from prosecution forever. Later he made it illegal to refuse to praise him and his policies during religious services. Actually insulting him was punishable by up to five years in prison. He also criminalized placing loyalty to Islam above loyalty to the nation’s leaders. For good measure, Karimov banned the study of Arabic, which was being used by students and scholars to read the Quran in its original language.
TROUBLE WITH A CAPITAL T—In October 2002, without warning or explanation, Karimov’s government shut down all billiard halls.
TORTURE—Upon the issuance of a United Nations report on torture in Uzbekistan in December 2002, UN Special Rapporteur Theo van Boven told reporters that “torture, as far as I can see… is not just incidental, but systemic in nature.” According to Human Rights Watch, at least 7,000 political prisoners are held in Uzbek custody at any given time. Many of them are subjected to “psychiatric treatment.” Another group at risk in Uzbekistan is journalists. In 2002, in one of his periodic gestures to please the outside world, Karimov magnanimously announced an end to media censorship. Actually, media censorship had been outlawed by the 1992 constitution. But there had never been much need for official censorship since the threat of beatings and torture had always been enough to encourage self-censorship. In June 2002, the Committee to Protect Journalists declared Uzbekistan the only country in Europe or Central Asia that imprisons journalists “for carrying out their professional duties.”
One typical case of torture in Uzbekistan was that of Muzafar Avazov, a thirty-five-year-old father of four, who, along with a companion, Husnidin Alimov, died while incarcerated in Jaslyk prison. When his body was released to his family, it was covered with heavy bruising, his fingernails were gone, and more than 60% of his body was burned, leading observers to surmise that he had been scalded in boiling water. Relatives of other prisoners have reported that their family members are forced to sign statements begging Karimov for forgiveness and admitting that they are terrorists. Karimov bragged that fifty to sixty people were sentenced to death in 2004. Neither the prisoners nor their families were informed of the dates of their executions and, in some cases, even their burial sites were kept secret. Karimov, as a point of information, had designated 2004 the Year of Kindness and Mercy.
Although the U.S State Department repeatedly condemned Uzbekistan’s use of torture to extract confessions (real or imagined) from prisoners, the CIA took advantage of Karimov’s brutal methods. During the three years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration airlifted dozens of prisoners from the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay and other sites to Tashkent so that Uzbek security personnel could take care of them. In July 2004, Craig Murray, the U.K. ambassador to Uzbekistan, wrote a memo to the British Foreign Office accusing the CIA of using the program to violate the United Nations Prohibition Against Torture. The Foreign Office responded that it was all right to use information gained by torture as long as the torture was not performed by British interrogators.
THE ANDIJAN MASSACRE—Until 2005, the worst excesses of Islam Karimov’s regime had taken place behind closed doors. But on May 13, 2005, Karimov ordered a mass killing that could not be ignored.
Akram Yulashev was a mathematics teacher from the town of Andijan in the Fergana Valley who came from a family of math and chess experts. But Yulashev was also interested in spiritual matters. In 1991, after two years of work, he completed a forty-four-page handwritten work called Yimonga Yul (Path to Faith). Distributed as a pamphlet the following year, it presented twelve lessons that stressed that spiritual values were more important than material values. One admirer of the pamphlet, an entrepreneur named Bakhrom Shakirov, donated land to Yulashev’s followers to start businesses that included a bakery, a restaurant, a shoe factory, and a hair salon.
Although Yulashev did not advocate the overthrow of the government, Karimov felt threatened by the movement, which his government dubbed Akramia after Yulashev’s first name. In 1998, Yulashev was convicted on a phony drug charge, released as part of a presidential amnesty, and then rearrested almost immediately following the 1999 Tashkent bombings.
Meanwhile, a group of businessmen and community leaders in Andijan, unable to obtain credit from government banks, began to pool their capital to help each other. They established a minimum wage that was higher than what the government paid and they paid their employees’ medical expenses. By 2004, they were employing thousands of workers in a wide variety of industries and providing consumer goods, such as furniture and clothing, at prices that undercut the government monopolies. In June of that year, Karimov had twenty-three of the businessmen arrested. Twenty-two of them were charged with organizing a criminal group, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order of Uzbekistan, membership in an illegal religious organization and possession or distribution of literature containing a threat to public safety. The other defendant was a government employee who was charged with abuse of power.
The trial of the twenty-three began on February 11, 2005. The nonlawyer who tried to present their defense quit because the judge would not allow him to question the witnesses. As the verdict was expected to be delivered on May 13, government security officers arrested some friends and relatives of the accused. During the night of May 12-13, fifty to one hundred young men who were friends, relatives, and supporters of the businessmen attacked a police station and a military barracks and stole AK-47 rifles, grenades, a military truck, and other weapons. In the process, they may have killed four policemen and two soldiers. After midnight, the attackers used the truck to ram down the gate to the prison and they freed the twenty-three businessmen, as well as more than 500 other prisoners, whom they told, “Now you are freed from injustice. Please go out.” After a one-hour gun battle at the building housing the National Security Service, the attackers and some of the freed prisoners moved on to the center of town and took over the local government building (hokimiat).
Using cellphones, they called for a mass protest in Bobur Square. They also distributed a hastily produced leaflet that said, “We are unjustly accused of membership in Akramia.… If we don’t demand our rights, no one else will protect them for us…. Let the region’s governor come and representatives of the President too, and hear our pain….If we stick together, they will not harm us.”
By morning more than 10,000 people had gathered in the square, including lots of women and children. The attackers gave speeches about poverty, corruption, the lack of jobs, and the unfair trials. Some of the freed prisoners described their prison conditions and their trials. Then the loudspeaker was turned over to anyone who wanted to speak, and ordinary citizens voiced their complaints, including government employees who had not been paid in four months. Meanwhile, the more aggressive of the protestors took hostage men in uniforms. Later they freed the soldiers, but kept the policemen, as well as the head tax inspector, the city prosecutor, and two government officials, who were forced to “confess” to the crowd. The prosecutor gave to one of the protest leaders, Abduljon Parpiev, the phone number of the Uzbek interior minister, Zokirjon Almatov. Parpiev demanded the release of political prisoners, including Akram Yulashev, and he asked Almatov to send a government representative to the square to listen to the peoples’ grievances.
A false rumor spread that Karimov himself was coming and the crowd cheered because many of them naively believed that their problems were caused by local officials and that the president would overrule their decisions. Instead, Karimov sent the army. By 4:00 p.m., the crowd realized that military armored personnel carriers had blocked all the roads around the square and that no one could leave. At 5:20 the troops opened fire on the crowd. One route was left open and people rushed forward in an attempt to escape. But the route was actually a shooting gallery with government snipers on rooftops and behind sandbags. Hundreds of people were killed, including all but four of the hostages.
More than 600 survivors tried to walk the thirty-five miles to the Kyrgyz border, although not all of them made it because they were ambushed along the way. Back in Andijan, the wounded lay untreated and dying. The next morning, soldiers executed the wounded. Water cannons were used to wash away the blood, the dead bodies were taken away, bullet holes in buildings were painted over, and broken windows replaced. All that remained was the bodies of seventeen muscular men, which were shown to journalists as proof that all the deaths had been caused by these seventeen attackers.
When the U.S. government rejected Karimov’s version of events and condemned the massacre, Karimov became so furious that, on July 29, 2005, he ordered the U.S. to evacuate the Karshi-Khanabad air base it had been using since 9/11. He then signed a treaty with Russia that increased its military ties with Uzbekistan. In September, following the usual torture-induced confessions, fifteen Andijan demonstrators pleaded guilty to various crimes, after which they went on trial. Karimov’s government claimed that, as part of an Islamic holy war, Akram Yulashev had directed the uprising using a mobile phone hidden in his maximum security prison cell. Six of the defense lawyers asked forgiveness for representing the defendants. Between November 2005 and January 2006 at least 230 other people were convicted in seventeen related trials, all of which were closed to the public.
“At a certain stage of historic change, you need a strong will and a certain figure… and you have to use some authoritarian methods at times.”
January 28, 2002
Speaking to the Uzbek parliament about the followers of Juma Namangani:
“Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I will shoot them myself.”
May 2, 1998
“I am prepared to rip off the heads of two hundred people to sacrifice their lives in order to save peace and calm in the republic…If my child chose such a path [the IMU], I myself would rip off his head.”
April 2, 1999
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