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Human Rights Watch Slams Obama Administration For Ignoring Abuses In Uzbekistan [UPDATED]

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits a General Motors plant in Tashkent during her most recent trip to Uzbekistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits a General Motors plant in Tashkent during her most recent trip to Uzbekistan.

The Obama administration has allowed gross violations of human rights in Uzbekistan to go unchecked in order to avoid losing a crucial supply route for Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch alleges in a Tuesday report.

"The West's increasingly soft approach on rights in Uzbekistan became even more pronounced in 2011 when it contrasted starkly with the stance of the Obama administration and EU officials during the Arab Spring," HRW said in its new report, entitled "No One Left to Witness."

Steve Swerdlow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch covering Uzbekistan, said his organization was kicked out of Uzbekistan late last year, the first time in the organization's three decades that an entire field office was expelled from a country. The move drew minimal reproach from the administration, he added.

"There was a very soft statement from the State Department a few months later 'expressing concern,' but no condemnation of the move," he said. Swerdlow himself was expelled from the country on Christmas eve of last year.

Instead, Swerdlow said, the administration has focused its energy on winning over Uzbek president Islam Karimov's cooperation with the crucial Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a supply line for NATO troops in Afghanistan that runs through Uzbekistan.

The northern supply line has become increasingly vital after Pakistan cut off American movements from the south late last month, when an errant NATO airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.

The link between apparent American self-censorship on human rights and Uzbekistan's cooperation with the NDN has been documented for some time.

Classified cables released by Wikileaks last year described how, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named an Uzbek human rights activist as one of her "Women of Courage" in 2009, Karimov became enraged and threatened "in icy tones" to withdraw support for the NDN.

In September, at the urging of the White House, the Senate Appropriations Committee quietly passed a measure that, if approved by Congress, would allow the Obama administration to bypass the seven-year-old sanctions on foreign funding to Uzbekistan, something that had become a personal mission of Karimov for months.

"The Obama administration is in frequent consultation with colleagues on Capitol Hill on this issue," said State Department spokesperson Emily Horne. "We are all seeking peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region and are working to support our troops on the ground."

According to Jeff Goldstein, a Eurasia expert at the Open Society Foundations, the drawdown of American efforts to pressure Uzbek leaders on human rights was evident in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visits to the nation.

When Clinton traveled to Tashkent in 2010, she held a meeting with several human rights activists, and the American embassy proudly posted a photograph from the meeting on its website.

At the more recent visit in October, Clinton met with an even smaller group, and no public notice of the event was made online.

Several prominent human rights activists told the news outlet EurasiaNet that they were either not invited to participate in the meeting or -- in at least one case -- were prepped for a meeting by a State Department official and then excluded.

"There is really a disinclination to do anything that might cause Karimov to play around with the NDN," Goldstein said.

At the end of the latest visit, a senior State Department official briefing reporters said that Clinton had raised human rights with Karimov, but that on the whole, the administration was inclined to believe Karimov's own claims on the matter.

"He's said several times that he's committed to this," the official said, adding that Karimov had made a speech the previous November in which he discussed reforms.

"The ironic thing is that just a month after that speech, I was booted out of the country," Swerdlow said. "There's actually no evidence of any improvement or any desire to reform [from Karimov]. It's hogwash to think he's trying to change anything."

The Human Rights Watch report documents numerous violations of basic human rights in Uzbekistan, including arbitrary and indefinite detention, rampant suppression of free speech, and evidence of brutal torture of dissidents.

The State Department's own human rights reports on Uzbekistan are relentless, with the most recent one describing the country as an "authoritarian state," and offering an extensive litany of abuses.

This article has been updated with a comment from the State Department and to clarify the status of the waiver passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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