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20th Feb 2020

Nobody admits inviting Uzbek chief to EU capital

  • Belgian green MEP Bart Staes: "The EU is wrong to roll out the red carpet for dictators" (Photo: Mr Zebra)

Belgium, the European Commission and Nato have all denied that they were the ones who invited Uzbek hardman Islam Karimov to Brussels amid bitter criticism from NGOs.

Speaking to EUobserver on Friday (21 January), commission spokesman Michael Karnitschnig said: "I don't know whether Belgium or Nato invited him. I can say [EU commission President] Barroso did not invite him. The Uzbek side contacted us first. They launched the process if you will."

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Mr Karnitschnig in earlier remarks to the Eurasianet.org website said: "To my knowledge it was Nato and the Belgian authorities who issued the invitation first."

Nato is not keen to play the leading role in the events, however. "It was not Nato who initiated the invitation to Brussels," a Nato source said.

And Belgium has washed its hands of the controversial trip. "There is no bilateral part in the [Karimov] visit. He's only visiting the EU and Nato. There has never been any request about this, though I wouldn't exclude that a future [bilateral] visit could take place," Bart Ouvry, the Belgian foreign ministry's spokesman, said.

The Karimov trip looks highly incongruous with the EU's attempt to depict itself as a champion of democracy and human rights over recent events in Belarus and Tunisia.

Mr Karimov is responsible for the massacre of 1,500 civilians in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan in 2005. In another incident confirming his credentials as one of the most cruel and unusual leaders on the world stage, Human Rights Watch in 2002 documented a case of a Muslim detainee who was boiled alive in one of his jails.

Mr Barroso's office has said he will ask about human rights. But the primary aims of the EU and Nato meetings concern Uzbek help on EU energy security and logistical support for the war effort in Afghanistan.

The Uzbek foreign ministry could not be reached for a clarification on Friday.

Mr Karimov's official website says, however: "[The] President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov left for Brussels on 23 January on the invitation of the President of the European Union Commission Jose Manuel Barroso."

A coalition of NGOs including the Eurasian Transition Group and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee on Sunday said the European Commission put a link on its website to the 73-year-old ruler's official biography.

The biography says: "For his outstanding contribution to education in Uzbekistan, creation of a state based on democratic laws, guarantee of civil peace and national accord, and for courage, I. Karimov was awarded the title Hero of Uzbekistan and the awards Mustakillik (Independence) and Amir Temur."

The commission removed the link after the NGOs complained.

"In addition to being embarrassed, the commission is now desperate. I mean, Nato could have invited Karimov to Brussels, but Barroso still didn't have to accept a meeting with him just because he was in town. The commission knows this whole thing is a mess, and they are looking for excuses," the International Crisis Group's communications director, Andrew Stroehlein, said.

Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) advocacy director for Europe and central Asia, told this website that Uzbekistan uses its positive relations with the EU to block queries into what happened in Andijan. "They say that since the EU lifted its sanctions after the massacre [in 2009], even the Union considers the case closed," she said.

HRW and the Open Society Institute are organising a flash demonstration outside the commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels at 10.30 local time on Monday morning.

This story was updated at 12.15 Brussels time on Sunday to add new information from the Eurasian Transition Group

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