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U.S. willfully blind to Uzbek injustice

The Pentagon needs to add another base to its closing list -- the air base at Karshi-Khanabad. The base is in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, a Central Asian nation right next to Afghanistan.

No doubt the base has a useful function in the continuing war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it is also the main reason why the Bush administration lends aid and comfort to a brutal regime.

When the regime gunned down at least 200 protesters in eastern Uzbekistan on Friday, the White House slavishly repeated the government's claim that it was countering Islamist terrorists. The White House press secretary uttered empty words urging ``restraint'' on both the government and protesters -- an amazing idea when heavily armed police and military units fire on crowds of mostly unarmed demonstrators.

Islam Karimov, the thug who heads the Uzbek government, is not known for restraint. He has crushed all forms of dissent. According to human rights organizations, as well as the State Department, torture and ill-treatment are the norm in Uzbekistan's prisons.

So why aren't we hearing the high-flying rhetoric about freedom that President Bush poured out last week when he visited the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Georgia? Aside from our prized base, there is the Uzbek gulag.

As the New York Times revealed this month, Uzbekistan has been a key partner in the so-called rendition program, a place for the CIA to stash dozens of prisoners where they can be tortured out of sight. The former British ambassador to Uzbekistan told the Times that during 2003 and early 2004, secret CIA flights ferried in prisoners as frequently as twice a week.

No surprise that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, during a February 2004 visit, brushed off repeated questions at a news conference about human rights. Instead, he brought Karimov ``the good wishes of President Bush and our appreciation for their stalwart support in the war on terror.''

The nature of Karimov's rule is no secret. As a reporter covering the Soviet Union, I visited Uzbekistan in the early 1990s when Karimov was the Communist Party chief. Opponents, including Islamic activists, met me in secret. When independence from Soviet rule came, the communist state, including its secret police, simply draped itself in Uzbek colors.

After 15 years, the state-run economy is firmly intact. Corruption is widespread and the 26 million Uzbeks sink deeper and deeper into poverty. Pro-democracy activists have all been jailed or forced into exile and Western organizations barred. Radical Islamists are the only vibrant opposition remaining. Some engage in violence, but most advocate peaceful revolution.

The Clinton administration cultivated relations with the Uzbeks, part of a strategy of encouraging their separation from Russian domination. The Bush administration took this embrace to a new level after Sept. 11, 2001, when Karimov cleverly linked his own fight with the Islamist opposition to the global war on terror.

The current revolt in Andijan, in the volatile and impoverished Ferghana Valley, began in February with peaceful protests over the arrests of 23 local businessmen, accused of being members of an Islamist group whose jailed leader was convicted of trying to topple the government. When their trial finished this week, anger erupted. A group of armed men stormed the local prison, freeing 2,000 prisoners, including the businessmen.

Thousands of protesters filled the main city square, drawn by calls to end widespread poverty, according to Justin Burke, editor of Eurasianet, an online publication on Central Asia which has correspondents on the scene.

Smaller protests have also broken out in recent weeks elsewhere in Uzbekistan, apparently triggered in part by the March uprising in neighboring Kyrgyzstan after rigged elections there.

``People have been emboldened by the Kyrgyz example and they are losing their fear of the regime,'' Burke said.

The Bush administration probably would be happy if Karimov disappeared, even if another dictator took his place. But U.S. officials also don't want to endanger their cozy security relationship.

``They prefer to stick their heads in the sand and hope that things don't get out of hand,'' says Burke. ``Uzbekistan is a train wreck waiting to happen.''

It is time for the United States to get off the train and help lay new track to really support democracy in Islamic Uzbekistan.

Daniel Sneider is foreign-affairs writer for the Mercury News. His column appears on Sunday. Contact him at