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Three-minute judges

Uzbekistan | Instant guilty verdicts, aid group shutouts, and persecution mark 15-year President Islam Karimov's power grab as the key U.S. ally heads toward a potenially rigged election.

Issue: "Can't run or hide," Oct. 14, 2006

As of Oct. 1 James Hall could officially mothball his CEO title. He headed a humanitarian group that has offered education and small business development in Uzbekistan for 15 years. But this summer the government shut down the Central Asian Free Exchange for operating said CAFÉ without a license to use the internet, teach, or print books-even though the group had used the government's own publishing house. When Hall offered his defense to a judges' panel, the judges returned a guilty verdict after deliberating just 3 1/2 minutes. So Hall had to close his group's 10 development centers, lay off 300 Uzbek workers and exit the country along with other foreign employees.

Hall's storyline is similar to that of several nonprofits working in Uzbekistan. In the last year alone, hundreds of local and Western organizations have been forced to close.

Religious persecution has also intensified, with harsh restrictions on both Muslims and Christians. The deterioration prompted a U.S. scolding last month, when Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford said Uzbekistan "deserves to be singled out."

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Repressing believers could earn the Central Asian republic a spot on the State Department's list of the world's worst persecutors this fall, called "Countries of Particular Concern," which can carry punitive actions, including sanctions.

While Hall had to fold his 15-year operation, President Islam Karimov is trying to extend his 15-year rule. Next year Uzbekistan will elect a president. Constitutionally Karimov cannot stand for reelection because a president may serve only two five-year terms. But already he has fudged the rules to take another five.

Warned by peaceful revolutions that swept Ukraine, Georgia, and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Karimov also knows his people could topple him. So for three years he has clamped down harder on dissent and free expression-accusing foreign nonprofits of hidden agendas to incite uprisings. Authorities routinely arrest, detain, and torture Muslims, as well as Christians and human-rights defenders, who are often falsely labeled extremists.

And if Westerners feel the bite, life for ordinary Uzbeks is worse. "Within the last year and a half people have grown disillusioned and very unhappy, shamed by [Karimov's] action," said Hall. Many complain that times are tougher now than under the Russians 15 years ago. And high taxes make it hard to do business, all but crowding out hand-to-mouth petty trading at bazaars.

One former aid worker, who requested anonymity because he wishes to return to Uzbekistan and fears angering the government, said officials recently tried to shift to a totally cashless society. The effort failed, he said: "People are not going to have a point-of-sale computer at their onion stand."

The Karimov crackdown also stems from an uprising in May 2005 when state forces in Andijon killed about 500 people demonstrating against the imprisonment of local businessmen ("Long, hot summer ahead," June 4, 2005). The massacre prompted widespread condemnation from the West, and rocky relations between Uzbekistan and the United States.

When Washington criticized Karimov's handling of Andijon, he quickly ordered the United States to leave its air base in Karshi-Khanabad, a key staging ground used for missions into Afghanistan. Since then, operations have shifted to farther-off and more expensive Manas Airport in Kyrgyzstan. With that in mind, some in the Bush administration are pushing to repair relations with Karimov.

In the meantime, Russia and China have moved in, building bigger business interests and military ties with Uzbekistan. With those two regional giants deepening their influence, "Central Asia is playing an important role in foreign policy calculations," said Ariel Cohen, a Heritage Foundation analyst.

Last month, President Bush heartily welcomed to the White House Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, an autocratic leader he has previously criticized. But Kazakhstan offers a rare commodity in rough times: support for the war on terror. In a region thick with dictators but high on value, how the Bush administration manages its relationship with Nazarbayev, Karimov, and others is a measure of whether democratization is a top priority now.

For the near future, Karimov appears to have free reign in turning off democracy-breeding outlets. Correspondents for Radio Free Liberty and the BBC are no longer allowed in the country, closing off two of the main independent news sources used by Uzbeks. The government has also booted out other big names, such as Freedom House and the Peace Corps.

Human Rights Watch has survived but is under audit. "It's pure vengeance against the United States," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the group's Europe and Central Asia Division. "More broadly, it's an effort by the Uzbek government to shut down all institutions that promote civil society." With observers gone, Karimov potentially has more opportunity to manipulate next year's elections.

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