(Washington, DC) – United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should make clear to the leaders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan during her upcoming visits that improving their poor human rights records is a key component of their engagement with the US, Human Rights Watch said today.

Clinton is to visit Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, on October 23, 2011, and is expected to meet with President Islam Karimov and separately with Uzbek civil society activists. Her trip to the region will also include a stop in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for similar high-level meetings.

“Washington should not allow Uzbekistan’s standing as a strategic partner to distort reality about the government’s deplorable record,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Secretary Clinton’s trip is a crucial opportunity to set the record straight and underscore Tashkent’s urgent need to end abuses.”

The visit to Tashkent is the first since the administration’s controversial move in September to lift longstanding restrictions on financial assistance, including military assistance, to Uzbekistan. The restrictions were imposed in 2004 because of Tashkent’s appalling rights record. News media reports following the move quoted Clinton as saying that Uzbekistan was “showing signs of improving its human rights record and expanding political freedoms.”

Clinton should press Uzbekistan to release wrongfully imprisoned rights activists, allow civil society to operate freely, end torture in its detention facilities, and stop the use of forced child labor, Human Rights Watch said.

Uzbek authorities freed a critically ill human rights defender, Norboi Kholjigitov, on October 14, in what was widely considered an advance gesture ahead of Clinton’s visit. The veteran activist was imprisoned in June 2005 following a conviction on politically motivated charges and was subjected to abuse in prison.

“Kholjigitov’s release is an encouraging development that could not have come a moment too soon for someone so critically ill,” Williamson said. “It shows that it’s possible for the US to get results if it presses for change and underscores the urgent need for Secretary Clinton to call for further improvements.”

The Uzbek government continues to hold at least 12 human rights defenders on wrongful charges. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov. Many other journalists and political activists remain behind bars for no other reason than their legitimate civil society activism.

Human Rights Watch called on Clinton to make clear, both in private meetings with Uzbek officials and civil society activists and in public statements, that aid concessions will be made only if there is measurable progress in human rights.

“Secretary Clinton should leave no doubt that the US government is seriously concerned about Tashkent’s lack of meaningful progress on human rights,” Williamson said.

Tajikistan’s record, too, is marred by serious abuses, which Clinton should raise with top officials during her visit, Human Rights Watch said.

The recent convictions of two independent journalists on what appear to be politically motivated charges related to their legitimate journalism work tops the list of concerns, Human Rights Watch said. On October 14, Urunboy Usmonov, a longtime BBC journalist, was found guilty of complicity in the activities of a banned religious extremist organization, Hizb ut Tahrir, apparently for failing to report on their activities. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but subsequently amnestied so will not be serving prison time. During his trial Usmonov alleged he was subjected to ill-treatment in custody, including being beaten and burned on his arms with cigarettes.

Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov is a reporter with the independent weekly Zuri Zindagi, who has been in prison since November 2010 facing multiple charges including insult and defamation, and was similarly convicted on October 14 and released under an amnesty. He has to pay a large fine and is banned from journalism for three years.

The government also has cracked down more broadly on media freedoms and restricted religious freedoms. A new “Parental Responsibility Law” requires parents to prevent their children from participating in religious activity until they reach age 18, except if they are enrolled in official, state-sanctioned religious education.

Torture is an enduring problem in the country’s detention facilities and is believed to have resulted in at least two deaths so far in 2011.