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(New York, February 24, 2004)—U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should tell the Uzbek government its poor human rights record will impede developing relations between the two countries, Human Rights Watch said today. Rumsfeld is scheduled to meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent today.

“The Uzbek government has promoted itself as a partner in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Rumsfeld should tell Karimov that real partners in that fight abide by the rule of law, and give people peaceful avenues for expressing themselves.”

After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the Bush administration established an air base in Uzbekistan to facilitate its campaign in Afghanistan, and dramatically increased assistance to the Uzbek government.

But last month, the U.S. State Department decertified Uzbekistan for aid under a U.S. nonproliferation-assistance program because the Central Asian country had made no progress towards ending police torture and other abuses. The U.S. assistance program, known as Cooperative Threat Reduction program, helps former Soviet republics destroy and avoid proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Uzbekistan will still receive the designated U.S. funds under a national interest waiver, but nevertheless received the much-needed political message about U.S. dissatisfaction over the Uzbek government’s human rights record.

Later this spring, the Bush administration will have to decide whether to certify Uzbekistan for broader assistance programs. Because the certification requirement for these programs has no national security waiver, all direct assistance to the Uzbek government, including military assistance, would be suspended if Uzbekistan is decertified.

“Uzbekistan still has time to make improvements in advance of the spring certification,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “Rumsfeld should tell Karimov that the Pentagon’s own programs are on the line and that they won’t go forward unless the Uzbek government shapes up.”

In another former Soviet republic, Rumsfeld’s failure to deliver a consistent message about U.S. policy in Azerbaijan during his December 2003 visit to Baku undermined efforts by the U.S. State Department to promote democracy and human rights in the country. The visit came just six weeks after the Azeri government had rigged the presidential elections and launched a brutal crackdown on the political opposition. Rumsfeld openly congratulated Ilham Aliev on his election victory, and refused to answer questions about whether the presidential elections had met international standards.

“Many will now be looking to Rumsfeld to deliver a consistent message on U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan,” Denber said. “Will he clearly say that repressive Uzbek government policies are wrong and will ultimately undermine stability in that country? Or will he stay silent on political repression and torture, sending an unwitting green light to the government?”

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