(New York) – The US Congress should reject an Obama administration proposal to drop restrictions on assistance to the Uzbek government that are linked to that government’s atrocious human rights record, Human Rights Watch said today. The restrictions, in place since 2004, should be lifted only when the Uzbek government significantly improves its practices, Human Rights Watch said.

“For the US to lift its restrictions now would be an enormous gift to one of the most repressive governments in Central Asia,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In the midst of the Arab Spring, the administration should have learned that downplaying human rights with abusive allies is not only harmful for the population affected, but damages the United States’ interests and reputation over the long-term.”

According to congressional sources, the administration wants Congress to adopt language that would allow the secretary of state to waive existing human rights-based restrictions on US assistance, including military aid, to the Uzbek government. The waiver would be intended to help secure a deal the United States is negotiating with the Uzbek government to provide the US enhanced military access to Uzbekistan to support its operations in Afghanistan.

Since 2009, Uzbekistan has played a growing role in US efforts to secure supply routes to Afghanistan, chiefly through Uzbekistan’s involvement in the Northern Distribution Network – a set of commercial agreements with Central Asian states to allow the transit of non-lethal cargo to supply US forces in Afghanistan. The network is an alternative to what administration officials have said are increasingly unstable supply lines through Pakistan. While the United States does not currently provide direct aid to the Uzbek government, it does pay transit fees and has entered into contracts that are lucrative for local companies, some of which, according to media reports, are linked to Uzbek government officials and their families.

“The US has an interest in enhancing its supply routes to Afghanistan, and the Uzbek government profits handsomely from existing transit agreements, so both have strong reasons to continue and expand them,” Williamson said. “The United States should not be sacrificing human rights conditions to reach an agreement on access that both sides ultimately want.”

Congressional restrictions on aid to Uzbekistan, introduced in 2004, were based on legislation enacted in 2002 that makes US assistance to the Uzbek government contingent on its efforts to improve its human rights record and to institute political and institutional reform. For aid funds to be made available, the US secretary of state would have to certify that the Uzbek government is making “substantial and continuing progress” in meeting its commitments to the United States under a joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework, signed in March 2002.

In this declaration, the Uzbek government pledged to build a strong and open civil society, ensure respect for human rights and freedoms, and establish a genuine multiparty system. It also promised that it would ensure free and fair elections, permit political pluralism, diversity of opinions, and the freedom to express them, and guarantee the independence of the media and the courts.

“Nothing the Uzbek government has done in the past seven years bears even the faintest resemblance to demonstrating respect for human rights and freedoms,” Williamson said. “Its record is more like a catalogue of repression and brutality.”

The Uzbek government tolerates no criticism of its policies. At least 13 human rights activists and numerous journalists and political activists are languishing in prison because of their work. Several of them have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment and are in ill-health. The government also uses a variety of other means, including harassment and threats, to silence independent journalists and opposition political activists.

Torture and ill-treatment are systematic and widespread in pretrial detention and prisons across Uzbekistan. Many prisoners are re-tried on spurious prison violation charges designed to keep them incarcerated years after their original sentences are complete.

The Uzbek government persistently refuses to allow domestic or international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, to operate in the country.

Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls are persecuted for their beliefs, with hundreds convicted on religious extremism charges every year. Widespread use of government-sponsored forced labor, including child labor, to collect the annual cotton harvest is a pervasive human rights concern in Uzbekistan. No one has been held accountable for the 2005 massacre in Andijan, when government forces opened fire on protesters, most of them unarmed, killing hundreds.

“The US government should pursue human rights in Uzbekistan at least as aggressively as its security interests,” Williamson said. “Providing aid concessions in the absence of measurable progress on human rights would send a troubling message to the people of Uzbekistan that Washington values short-term gains above the long-term promotion of fundamental rights.”