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Uzbekistan Polls Close; Karimov Favorite in Controversial Election


Voters in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan have finished voting in an election expected to extend the 18-year rule of autocratic President Islam Karimov. The presidential ballot has been condemned by the opposition as a Soviet-style one-man contest, while the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has told VOA that very few foreigners have been allowed to monitor the election. Stefan Bos reports for VOA from Budapest.

As polling stations closed Sunday in the isolated Central Asian state, the outcome appeared to be a forgone conclusion with 69-year-old Islam Karimov expected to be re-elected as Uzbekistan's president for a new seven-year term.

He has been running against three virtual unknowns representing pro-government groups. They have not explicitly asked the ex-Soviet republic's 28 million people to vote for them in the election. Human rights watchers say that is no surprise in a country where authorities have been cracking down on voices of dissent since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Before the election, allies of the president allegedly cracked down on critical journalists, including 26-year-old Alisher Saipov, an independent reporter who contributed to Voice of America and other media.

Saipov was shot and killed in neighboring Kirgizstan October 24, leaving behind his wife and infant daughter. In a recent interview, Saipov had expressed concern that he was being trailed by what he believed were Uzbek security agents. However he also said: "Freedom does not know borders. Here, in our Uzbekistan the government tries to control the borders, with the help of Tajik and Kyrgyz colleagues. Nevertheless all kind of ideas are spreading here. Democratic as well as extremist and radical ideas."

Human rights groups also say there are thousands of political and religious prisoners across the country, many facing hardship, including torture. In one of the bloodiest known incidents in 2005, witnesses said hundreds of people were killed when troops opened fire on an anti-government demonstration in the town of Andijan.

Officials blamed the unrest on Islamist rebels and the government put the death toll at 187, saying most of the dead were terrorists or security forces.

A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Urdur Gunnarsdottir, suggested to VOA before the poll that election observers would try to visit Andijan. But she said authorities allowed less than two dozen OSCE observers to monitor the ballot.

"We have a limited, a very limited mission here, just 21 people. There are many reasons. One of them is that this is a very limited competition. But mainly also we received visas very late and we are simply not able to send a full-fledged mission on a very short notice. We need notice, and we did not get that," she said.

The state news agency reported election authorities announced a nearly 80 percent turnout four hours before the end of voting. Final results are expected Monday.

No Uzbekistan election since the breakup of the Soviet Union has been declared free and fair by the West. Analysts say the autocratic style of President Karimov is one of the main reasons why Uzbekistan has failed to prosper, despite its massive gas and cotton riches.

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