"After four decades of brutal dictatorship and eight months of deadly conflict, the Libyan people can now celebrate their freedom and the beginning of a new era of promise," President Obama said last week. The capture and death of Muammar Gaddafi prompted him and other US officials to congratulate the Libyan people on their liberation from a despot accused of terrible violations of human rights, including the 1996 massacre of more than 1200 prison inmates.
The kudos was as much for the US itself as Libya's victorious Transitional National Council. After all, the United States played a decisive role in Gaddafi's death. First President Obama put together the NATO coalition that served as the Benghazi-based rebels' loaned air force. When the bombing campaign was announced in February, Gaddafi's suppression of the human rights of protesting rebels was front and centre: "The United States also strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people," Obama said at that time. "That includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech, and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. They are not negotiable. They must be respected in every country. And they cannot be denied through violence or suppression." (No word on how police firing rubber bullets at unarmed, peaceful protesters at the Occupy movement in Oakland, California, fits into that.)
And in the end, it was reportedly a Hellfire missile fired by a Predator drone plane controlled by the CIA - in conjunction with an attack by a French fighter jet - that destroyed the convoy of cars Gaddafi and his entourage used to try to escape the siege of Sirte, driving him into the famous drainage pipe and into the hands of his tormentors and executioners.
US officials and media reports were right about Gaddafi's human rights record: It was atrocious. They cautioned the incoming TNC to make human rights a priority: "The Libyan authorities should also continue living up to their commitments to respect human rights, begin a national reconciliation process, secure weapons and dangerous materials, and bring together armed groups under a unified civilian leadership," Obama said. (No word on how Gaddafi's execution fits in to that.)
Yet, in the very same week, the United States was cozying up to another long-time dictator - one whose style, brutal treatment of prisoners, and notorious massacre of political dissidents is highly reminiscent of the deposed Libyan tyrant.
Like a business that maintains two sets of records, one for the tax inspector and the other containing the truth, the United States has two different foreign policies. Its constitution, laws and treaty obligations prohibit torture, assassinations, and holding prisoners without trial. In reality there are secret prisons such as Guantánamo. Similarly, there are two sets of ethical standards in America's dealing with other countries. Enemies are held to the strictest standards. Allies get a pass. This double standard is the number-one cause of anti-Americanism in the world.
In yet another display that exposes US foreign policy on human rights as hypocritical and self-serving, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Uzbekistan to establish closer ties with the Central Asian republic's president-for-life, Islam Karimov. Even as her State Department was ballyhooing the bloody conclusion of Gaddafi's 42-year reign as a victory for freedom and decency, the former First Lady was engaged in the cynical Cold War-style of one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.
In the human rights brief on Karimov, one major highlight is Central Asia's Tiananmen Square, the 2005 massacre of between 750 and 1250 peaceful demonstrators at Andijan, a southern town along the restive border with Kyrgyzstan, near the ancient Ferghana Valley. Karimov personally ordered Uzbek militia, Interior Ministry troops and regular army units to surround a square and gun down the protesters, then travelled to the site in order to witness the carnage. A few dozen people managed to escape, scrambling across a border crossing. Shocked Kyrgyz sentries, who had a view of the killing orgy, admitted the refugees. Uzbek troops chased the escapees into Kyrgyzstan, dragged them back and executed them on the Uzbek side of the bridge.
Prior to Andijan, the Clinton and Bush Administrations had a cozy relationship with Karimov, overlooking such untidy matters as the Uzbek leader's habit of boiling political dissidents to death (more on that later), in light of the perceived high strategic value of his country. Uzbekistan has huge energy reserves and a unique placement. (Uzbekistan is the only state in Central Asia that borders all the others. It also borders Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan via the Uzbek town of Termiz.) Tashkent is the region's biggest city, complete with its own metro system, European-standard international airport and daily nonstop flights to New York-infrastructure that became invaluable after America's 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. US and NATO paid Karimov for the right to build airbases.
After Andijan, the US gave into pressure by international human rights organisations to pull back. Covert aid continued, however. The airbases, including one known as Karshi-Khanabad (K2) were technically "closed" (though the personnel and activities continued). In late 2005 the US imposed low-grade trade sanctions.
That's all in the past now. In September 2011 Secretary Clinton lifted the sanctions, saying that the Karimov regime was "showing signs of improving its human rights record and expanding political freedoms". As a goodwill gesture in advance of Clinton's trip last week, Uzbek authorities released Norboi Kholjigitov, a human rights advocate jailed since 2005 on charges widely believed to have been politically motivated. Kholjigitov is said to be near death after years of abuse in prison.
One step forward, two steps back. One week before Clinton's arrival an Uzbek court found BBC journalist Urunboy Usmonov guilty of conspiring with Hizb ut Tahrir, an Islamist group that serves as an all-purpose national bugaboo (along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Tajik-based organisation with alleged links to the Afghan Taliban). The specific charge: "Failing to report on Hizb's activities." Usmonov received a three-year suspended sentence. He claimed to have been beaten and tortured in prison. The same day, newspaper reporter Makhmadyusuf Ismoilov, in jail since late last year for "insult and defamation" of Karimov, was subjected to a large fine and banned from journalism.
In Tashkent, a US State Department official described Karimov's most outrageous excesses as "a thing of the past". In this case, the past isn't merely prologue - it's ongoing.
According to a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch:
"New research by Human Rights Watch reveals that the Uzbek government continues to intimidate and harass the families of Andijan survivors who have sought refuge abroad. The police regularly summon them for questioning, subject them to constant surveillance, and threaten to bring criminal charges against them or confiscate their homes. School officials humiliate refugees' children. Five years after the massacre, on May 13, 2005, people suspected of having participated in or witnessed the massacre are still being detained, beaten, and threatened. The sentencing on April 30 of Diloram Abdukodirova, an Andijan refugee who returned to Uzbekistan in January, to ten years and two months in prison, shows the lengths to which the government will go to persecute anyone it perceives as linked to the Andijan events."
These Soviet-style persections did not prevent President Obama from personally calling Karimov last month on the occasion of Uzbekistan's 20th year of independence.
Karimov is one of three Central Asian strongmen (along with Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan) who have retained absolute power since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He presides over an autocracy whose level of corruption and dysfunction is staggering - even by dismal regional standards. All media is state-controlled. Opposition parties are banned. With substantial reserves from the Caspian Sea oil bonanza and by some measures the world's largest reserves of natural gas, Uzbekistan has the means to provide a comfortable living for all of its citizens. However, a tiny coterie of businessmen connected to the regime diverts nearly all of the proceeds of the nation's patrimony to numbered accounts overseas, leaving most of the population unemployed and in abject poverty.
Local militia (military police) are unpaid. So they pay themselves. They terrorize citizens with random raids, murders and countless checkpoints where motorists are shaken down. While arriving to visit a friend in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent a couple of years ago, I observed a dead body on the curb of the road in front of his apartment building. The man had been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver several days earlier. His body was in a state of advanced decomposition in the 120-degree heat, but no one had called the cops. No one dared.
As noted above, there are many reasons for the US to coddle the Uzbek dictator. But President Obama is especially focused on one. "The object of Obama's interest is the 'Northern Distribution Network, the Central Asian roads over which diesel and other US military supplies now increasingly travel [into Afghanistan]," writes Russell Zanca in Foreign Policy. "The administration is correct in thinking that NDN, as it is known for short, will run more smoothly through secular Uzbekistan than supplies have moved through Pakistan. But a question for practitioners of realpolitik is why the US considers it necessary to validate the unpopular Uzbek leadership now that it is politically expedient to do so."
It also prompts another question. The US is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. If they're really leaving, why do they care so much about the NCN? Is a soon-to-be abandoned supply route worth dealing with a man like Karimov?
The dichotomous US approaches to Gaddafi and Karimov - kill one, pay millions to the other - were pointed out in an eerily-prescient Uznews.net piece published on February 22, 2011, at the commencement of the NATO air campaign in Libya.
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"The regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is using the whole power of its armed forces, including artillery, air forces and foreign mercenaries, to crush the ongoing protests in the country; Uzbek President Islam Karimov used similar tactics in Andijan in 2005," reported Uznews. "The developments in Libya are reminiscent of the government crushing of a rally in Andijan on 13 May 2005. Gaddafi, like Islam Karimov, is not allowing foreign journalists into the country, blocking the internet and telecommunications and calling protesters 'terrorists'. He appeared on national television yesterday and called foreign news channels 'dogs'. Like Karimov, he is not considering negotiations as an option and is not willing to fulfill even parts of demands of protesters; he is offering a bloodbath instead … Like in Libya now, according to Uzbek opposition leaders, Uzbek authorities also hired foreign mercenaries: one of them was Tajik Colonel Makhmud Khudoyberganov, who was living in Uzbekistan after a failed coup d’état in Tajikistan in 1998."
Surely Secretary Clinton read her own State Department's recent report on Uzbekistan, which accuses the Karimov regime of "Instances of torture and mistreatment of detainees by security forces; incommunicado and prolonged detention; arbitrary arrest and detention; denial of due process and fair trial; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; governmental control of civil society activity; restrictions on religious freedom including harassment and imprisonment of religious minority group members; and government-compelled forced labour in cotton harvesting."
"Amnesty International and other groups have documented specific cases. In the summer of 2002, Amnesty International reported, Fatima Mukhadirova, a 62-year-old Tashkent shopkeeper, was sentenced to six years of hard labour after denouncing the government for the death of her son, Muzafar Avozov, in a Tashkent prison," says a May 1, 2005 report in The New York Times. "An independent examination of photographs of the body, conducted by the University of Glasgow, showed that Mr Avozov died after being immersed in boiling water, human rights groups reported. The examination said his head had been beaten and his fingernails removed."
According to Uzbeks, live boiling was a common practice.
"The relationship between the US and Uzbekistan is problematic," the 2005 Times article quoted a Human Rights Watch official as saying. "It can be useful that the US is powerful enough to push for certain concessions. That being said, the US should not be saying that Karimov is a partner, is an ally, is a friend. The US should send the message that Uzbekistan won't be considered to be a good ally of the United States unless it respects human rights at home."
During Clinton's trip to Tashkent last week, she defended the US policy of engagement. "I can assure you that we have raised all of the human rights issues in Uzbekistan and elsewhere," she said in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, another country with a poor human rights record. "But we have also learned over the years that after a while, after you've made your strong objections, if you have no contact, you have no influence."
Clinton didn't say why contact and influence were good for Karimov's Uzbekistan, but not Gaddafi's Libya.