Did Clinton Go Soft on Human Rights in Uzbekistan Visit?

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On her pasts trips to this Central Asian country, the secretary of state was much tougher on the despotic regime's awful record. What changed?

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Hillary Clinton listens as she is introduced to speak after touring the GM Powertrain plant in Tashkent, Uzbekistan / Reuters

On her tour of Central Asia and the Middle East/Northern Africa last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a town hall meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan with several hundred people. The audience asked tough questions about Tajikistan -- and even asked Clinton why she was meeting with the dictator Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. The State Department supplied a transcript of the meeting.

What a contrast with Clinton's meeting in Tashkent, where she met with only four NGO leaders and no transcript was made available. On the eve of her trip, Clinton received appeals to take up issues like forced child labor, and it was assumed that part of her itinerary would involve meeting with human rights activists as she had last year.

Instead, her carefully-choreographed meeting with the four seemed intended to evoke other parts of the US Administration's agenda related to promoting small business and women's empowerment and combating trafficking, as the softer options by contrast with hard-core human rights issues like political imprisonment, religious freedom and torture.

The meeting with two leaders from registered groups and two from unregistered provincial groups may have been designed to avoid too much criticism and controversy, local Uzbek activists say. The four included: Istikboli Avlod, who leads an organization working on human trafficking issues, Abdusalom Ergashev and Shuhrat Ganiev, human rights defenders from Ferghana and Bukhara, respectively , and a fourth woman involved in promoting small business whom we were unable to identify.

In her meeting with US and Uzbek embassy staff and families, Clinton mentioned the meeting with the four NGOs, noting "the importance of Uzbekistan to the region and to our national interest - not just because of its central role in the Northern Distribution Network and our efforts in Afghanistan, but for growing trade and economic opportunities and a great opportunity that we have to try to help develop democracy here in Uzbekistan." She said she would take up the NGOs' issues - unspecified - with the Uzbek leadership, and recalled opening up a women's clinic on her first visit (this was her third), and praised US officials for their work on trafficking. And that was it.

Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, a lawyer and director of the Export Working Group on human rights related law told EurasiaNet that at first a US Embassy official telephoned him and seemed to be preparing him for a meeting with Clinton, but then later withdrew the invitation, leaving him indignant:

The embassy didn't even invite a representative of an outspoken registered independent human rights NGO, the Ezgulik [Goodness] Human Rights Society to the meeting with Clinton. That indicates to me that the embassy didn't want to invite those NGO activists who would first of all be interested in sharing pressing human rights issues with the Secretary of State. For the last several years there have been only a few human rights activists in Uzbekistan (I would say up to 10-15) who are outspoken [and known] for their critical voice over existing human rights problems in Uzbekistan and I am one of those voices. I can't say those who were invited to the meeting with the Secretary are among such voices.

Vasila Inoyatova, chair of Ezgulik, also confirmed to EurasiaNet that she was not invited.

In addition to Ismoilov and Inoyatova, missing from the meeting were people like Elena Urlayeva of the Human Rights Alliance, who has been active in recent months monitoring and reporting on the use of forced child labor in the cotton harvest; Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Activists , who has defended victims of torture and political imprisonment; Ruhiddin Komilov, one of the few attorneys willing to take on political cases; and other prominent human rights activists such as Tatiana Dovlatova and Dilorom Iskhakova and independent journalists such as Alexei Volosevich.

Interestingly, says Ismoilov, two staff people who work for Senator John Kerry visited Tashkent recently and did hold meetings with some of these other activists to hear their concerns about media freedom, freedom of religion, torture and political imprisonment, as well as forced child labor.

Human rights groups seem to expect that US officials will show symbolic support for them by inviting them to meetings at the Embassy and even believe this helps in some way to protect them.

To be sure, the Uzbek government has sometimes lashed out horribly when the US has tried to show even cautious support. As we know from an alleged cable released by WikiLeaks, when the State Department gave an award to an Uzbek activist in 2009, President Karimov himself "flew into a rage" and implied in a meeting with the American ambassador that he might pull his cooperation on the NDN.

In January 2010, the US Embassy in Tashkent invited human rights activists to a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, but then fell back to avoiding the human rights community, activists say, even as they came under greater pressure from the government, with some of them facing arrests on charges of "defamation" for their critical reporting.

At the Dushanbe town hall, Clinton referred to her efforts in Uzbekistan as a "balancing act" between US geopolitical needs and human rights principles -- but her civil society meeting in Tashkent seems off balance.

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Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a journalist and translator specializing in Russia and Central Asia.

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