20th Jan 2022

Clock ticking on EU sanctions against Uzbekistan

EU sanctions on Uzbekistan expire on 13 November despite the country's relapse into disturbing human rights abuses, with Germany exploiting the EU legal system to try and scrap a visa ban list.

The sanctions package consists of an embargo on sales of arms or equipment that could be used for internal repression, such as razor wire and combat knives. It also forbids the EU entry of eight Uzbek officials and ex-officials, including acting security chief Rustam Inoyatov, tipped as a likely successor for 70-year old President Islam Karimov.

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  • Boiling water: Uzbekistan is infamous for one case of boiling a prisoner alive (Photo: Wikipedia)

The legal instrument covering the measures - which have already been subject to temporary suspensions - expires next month, unless it is renewed by a consensus of all 27 EU states.

Uzbekistan-friendly Germany wants to scrap the visa ban list but to renew the arms embargo, saying the EU must respect Uzbekistan's interests if it wants to forge closer ties.

"The vast majority of countries, I would say 95 percent of countries, agree with this," an EU diplomat said. "The Uzbek government has made some positive steps and these have to be encouraged. But at the same time the situation is not perfect, so we have to be wary."

Germany is also playing the EU legal system to pressure opponents such as the Netherlands into going along: if the Netherlands does not agree to the German plan before 13 November it will get nothing at all, as the whole sanctions package ceases to exist.

"The Germans are playing that card," a Dutch diplomat said. "They have time and the legal instrument on their side."

Meanwhile, the French EU presidency is keen to wrap up the Uzbekistan discussion before a foreign ministers meeting on 13 October, clearing the decks for ministerial debates on Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus and the upcoming EU summit instead.

History of cruelty

Uzbekistan gained a reputation for cruelty in 2002 over the case of Muzafar Avazov, a religious prisoner of conscience who was killed by immersion in boiling water.

The EU sanctions were imposed in 2005 in response to the Andijan massacre, when government troops machine-gunned at least 180 people during unrest in a remote market town.

Uzbekistan is at the heart of the EU's Central Asia policy, launched in 2007, with the aim of helping the region's five post-Soviet states become independent, EU-friendly countries that will one day ship natural gas direct to Europe, bypassing Russia.

The initiative has made a difference. Uzbekistan did not follow Russia in recognising Georgia's rebel enclaves South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. It has kept open Germany's military base in Termez, which supplies the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

In the first half of 2008 the country also abolished the death penalty, allowed Red Cross access to jails and released five political prisoners.

Boiling water again

But Uzbekistan has begun to backslide on human rights in the past few months according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is worried that scrapping the visa ban will remove the last real incitement to reform.

The NGO itself has been shut out of the country since July. Fresh arrests mean at least 14 political prisoners remain behind bars. In one case of government intimidation, human rights activist Ikhtior Khamroev had his children arrested.

The UN special rapporteur on torture has also been locked out of the country, despite evidence of a culture of violence among security services. Political activist Akzam Turgonov says police poured boiling water on his neck during questioning on 14 July.

"These individuals have no hope but for sustained international pressure on the Uzbek government for their release," HRW wrote in a letter to EU foreign ministers on 29 September.

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