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Uzbekistan has been a key partner in getting supplies to U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan. It also has a dismal record of human rights violations. Now as the Afghan war winds down, human rights groups want Washington to take a tougher stand against Uzbekistan's abuses. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Amnesty International has called Uzbekistan one of the world's most authoritarian states. Human Rights Watch issued a report last fall detailing what it says are severe human rights violations, especially for political prisoners. Steve Swerdlow is the organization's researcher for Central Asia.
STEVE SWERDLOW: Political prisoners in Uzbekistan are not only suffering torture, but also experiencing solitary confinement and a very cruel policy of extending their sentences for years and years and years on absurd farcical grounds.
FLINTOFF: Uzbekistan is ruled by 76-year-old Islam Karimov. He was the regional Communist Party boss before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he's been the president for nearly 24 years. Swerdlow says Karimov has used a prison system to crush his opponents. Muhammad Bekjanov is a case in point. Bekjanov edited an opposition newspaper challenging the Karimov government on issues such as child labor and corruption. His family says government threats forced them to flee the country and move to Kiev, of the capital of Ukraine. Bekjanov continued to produce an opposition newspaper that was smuggled back into Uzbekistan until 1999, when he suddenly disappeared. His wife and daughter came home to find their apartment ransacked.
AYGUL BEKJAN: They just came and grabbed him and transported him to Uzbekistan. We didn't know what happened to him.
FLINTOFF: That's Bekjanov's daughter, Aygul Bekjan.
BEKJAN: Just a couple of months later, we learned he was tortured, he was beaten, he was going through all of these horrible, horrible, horrible things.
FLINTOFF: Bekjan and her family now live in Spokane, Washington. Only her mother has been allowed to travel to Uzbekistan and visit her husband in prison. Aygul Bekjan says her mother saw a man who looks much older than his 60 years.
BEKJAN: He contracted tuberculosis, liver disease. Of course, from torture he has broken bones, and his arm was broken in a few places and his leg was broken in a few places.
FLINTOFF: Both the U.S. State Department and the U.N. Human Rights Committee have reported that torture and abuse are common in Uzbek prisons. But for years the United States has provided aid to Karimov's government, largely to secure a critical root for transporting supplies to Afghanistan.
Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia, visited Uzbekistan last month. She says that for the first time the talks on human rights issues included local human rights groups, a development that she calls a breakthrough.
NISHA BISWAL: We absolutely have talked about the specific cases of individuals that Human Rights Watch and other organizations, as well as we, put in our human rights report to urge some sort of amnesty or clemency or something that would allow on humanitarian grounds for these individuals to be released.
FLINTOFF: But Biswal says Uzbekistan is still important to stability in Afghanistan, providing it with electricity and a vital rail link. U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. In the meantime, Biswal says that despite deep human rights concerns, it's better for the U.S. to remain engaged with Karimov.
BISWAL: It's a combination of the right balance of pressure, partnership and a certain amount of strategic patience in how change can take place.
FLINTOFF: Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch agrees that Uzbekistan is important, but says, a country that's ruled by fear and human rights abuses will be an unstable ally in the future. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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