In Central Asia, traditions of hospitality dictate that who you invite into your home says as much about you as it does about your guest. The same is surely no less true in Central Europe. So when applied to diplomacy, what is Czech President Milos Zeman saying by inviting one of the world's most repressive leaders to be his guest?
The houseguest expected late next month at Prague castle is Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s president, who recently entered his 25th year of authoritarian rule. Over the last quarter century, the former Communist party boss has transformed Uzbekistan into a country notorious for its atrocious human rights situation. There hasn’t been a single election deemed even remotely “free and fair” by Western monitors. With the help of an extensive and much-feared security apparatus, Karimov has waged a brutal campaign to eradicate all political opposition, crush civil society, and muzzle the media.
Dozens of human rights activists and journalists, and thousands more peaceful religious believers are imprisoned on politically motivated charges. UN bodies and the European Court of Human Rights have repeatedly said that torture is “systematic” and “widespread” and carried out with near-total impunity in Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system. A total of 136 companies, including the major apparel brands Gap, H&M, and Levi’s, have pledged to avoid knowingly buying Uzbek cotton because the government forces millions of its citizens, including children, to harvest cotton each year under abusive conditions.
On May 13, 2005 government troops, including elite units that answer directly to Karimov, shot and killed hundreds of protesters in the city of Andijan, most of them unarmed. While Karimov defiantly resisted the United States and European Union’s calls for an independent investigation into the killings, hundreds of witnesses to the violence fled the country. The Czech Republic accepted dozens as refugees. Between 2005 and 2009, member states of the European Union, including the Czech Republic, placed targeted sanctions, including visa bans and an embargo on arms sales on Karimov’s government over the massacre.
These abuses, and Karimov’s adamant refusal to engage in meaningful reform, have made him an unpopular and infrequent guest in Western capitals. Indeed, even as the US and Germany have sought closer military cooperation with Karimov over Afghanistan, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among other political leaders, have declined to meet with him on human rights grounds, despite Tashkent’s eagerness to organize such meetings. Against this background, President Zeman’s recent invitation appears all the more inappropriate and controversial—an underserved gift that risks to legitimize Karimov’s repressive rule.
For further guidance, President Zeman can look to a 2001 episode when Prague had to wrestle over its dealings with Karimov. Authorities at Prague’s airport arrested Muhammad Solih, a prominent Uzbek opposition figure, on an Interpol warrant, as he arrived to give a lecture at Radio Free Europe. Solih had fled Uzbekistan a decade earlier and received political asylum in Norway. Karimov considers Solih one of his fiercest enemies. Solih had challenged him, albeit unsuccessfully, in Uzbekistan’s first presidential elections, after which Solih was repeatedly harassed and eventually sentenced in absentia in a political show trial to 15 years in prison for “anti-state activities.”
As soon as Czech authorities detained Solih, a chorus of human rights organizations, including my own, called on Prague not to extradite him to Uzbekistan, where he would face a serious risk of torture. It did not take long for the Czech government, including then-President Vaclav Havel, to realize its mistake. Even before a court had denied the extradition request, Havel personally received Solih at Prague castle and said of the case: “I am certain that he will not be extradited to the totalitarian leaders but will be returned to Norway. In my opinion, this should never have happened, and if it did, he should be returned [to Norway] very soon… I find it very sad. It harms our republic.”
Solih’s arrest was an embarrassment for the Czech Republic, but his release, Havel’s meeting with him, and the government’s later acceptance of Uzbek refugees demonstrated Prague’s strong support for human rights in Uzbekistan. But the current invitation to a man who so embodies repression threatens to undo that positive legacy. It sends all the wrong signals to Uzbekistan’s leadership, to its countless victims of abuse, and to the world more broadly about the Czech government’s commitment to human rights.
President Zeman should postpone his meeting with Karimov until there’s evidence that Uzbekistan has made concrete human rights improvements. Those should include the immediate release of political prisoners, allowing human rights groups and journalists to do their work, and cooperation with UN bodies. Karimov shouldn’t enjoy Czech hospitality while his country’s human rights defenders and journalists are sitting in his notorious prisons. Considering the guest, that would be the only right thing to say.
Steve Swerdlow is Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.