U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should exercise caution in dealing with Uzbekistan, America’s newest ally in the fight against terrorism, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on Rumsfeld to make clear that Uzbekistan should not read its new relationship with the U.S. as a green light to add further abuses to its already abysmal rights record.

“If the United States is going to ally itself with Uzbekistan, it has to find a way to avoid aligning itself with Uzbekistan’s brutal policies,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch.

Uzbekistan, which became an independent state in 1991, has retained much of its Soviet legacy. It has no independent political parties, no free and fair elections, and no independent news media. Torture and police brutality are widespread. Most vulnerable are political dissidents and religious Muslims who worship outside state controls.

“President Bush has said the war on terrorism cannot become a war on Islam,” Malinowski said. “The government of Uzbekistan is undeniably at war with forms of Islam it does not control.”

The government of Uzbekistan, led by President Islam Karimov, has waged a merciless four-year campaign against non-violent religious Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls. Citing the threat of “Islamic extremism,” authorities have arrested, tortured, and convicted thousands of these independent Muslims: men who attended sermons of state religious leaders who later fell out of favor, men who prayed at home or in small private groups, and those who belonged to unregistered Islamic organizations or possessed religious literature not sanctioned by the state.

Few of the estimated 7,000 independent Muslims sitting in Uzbekistan’s prisons today were accused of participation in any violent act, while thousands of peaceful Muslims were locked up for holding beliefs or worshiping in ways the state disapproves.

Human Rights Watch has called on the U.S. government to condition further assistance to Uzbekistan on improvements in its rights record.

“Uzbekistan already has its own interest in countering Osama bin Laden,” Malinowski said. “The United States shouldn’t have to buy its cooperation with unconditional rewards.”