An Uzbek opposition leader is calling on the United States not to cut its military ties to Uzbekistan despite a bloody government crackdown in that Central Asian republic last month.
Muhammad Salih, an Uzbek opposition leader living in exile in Germany, is on his first trip to the United States in a decade to meet with U.S. lawmakers and Bush administration officials in the wake of the violence in Uzbekistan.
Mr. Salih is urging Washington to use its influence in the region and to support opposition efforts to promote change in the former Soviet republic, which human rights groups have condemned for its repressive policies.
He says the United States and its Western allies have done little to respond to last month's incident in Andizhan, where he says government troops opened fire on peaceful protests against President Islam Karimov's authoritarian rule.
The Uzbek government says 173 people were killed when troops put down the unrest, but opposition groups say hundreds died.
At a Helsinki Commission hearing on Capitol Hill, Mr. Salih compared the situation to the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989. He spoke through an interpreter :
The Andizhan massacre could be compared to Tiananmen Square crisis, but the response from the world community to the events in Andizhan is many times smaller.
President Bush has joined international calls for an independent inquiry into the Andizhan crackdown, a proposal rejected by President Karimov.
The Uzbek government has since limited U.S. military use of its Karshi-Khanabad airbase, which supports operations in neighboring Afghanistan. That has forced the United States to temporarily shift some flights to Kabul.
The Bush administration is reassessing its ties to the government of President Karimov, which has been the U.S. partner in the war on terrorism. US officials are likely asking the same questions posed rhetorically by Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and chairman of the Helsinki Commission. "How long can we work with such a leader without damaging our own interests? Are we risking long-term losses for short-term gains? Are we strengthening terrorism or fighting it by aligning ourselves with President Karimov?," he asked.
Human rights advocates, including Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, say the United States should seriously consider cutting military ties with Uzbekistan:
"As a first step, the administration should publicly announce that it is suspending discussions on a long-term military base and explore alternative basing arrangement until the Uzbek government agrees to an international investigation. Should the Uzbek government persist in its refusal to accept an international investigation, the United States should bring to an end its post-September 11 strategic partnership with the country, and discontinue its military presence," she said.
Some U.S. lawmakers agree.
In a recent letter to London's Financial Times newspaper, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said while the Bush administration reviews its policy toward Uzbekistan, it should reassess the U.S. presence at the Karshi-Khanabad air base and suspend any talk of long-term basing arrangements.
But Uzbek opposition leader Salih argues otherwise, saying the U.S. military presence has been beneficial to Uzbekistan, providing a check on Chinese and Russian efforts to expand their influence in the region.
"The presence of the U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan actually have made a positive psychological effect in Uzbekistan because our situation where our country is squeezed between two other great powers with expansionist policies, China and Russia, it provided us with security guarantees," he said.
Mr. Salih has been denounced by Uzbek officials for having ties to terrorism -- allegations he strongly denied:
"The use of terrorism is a disdainful practice and does not bring about true reform. I urge the world community not to believe in the lies and old Soviet-style disinformation of the Karimov regime," he said.
Besides Mr. Salih and a number of human rights advocates, U.S. officials were invited to testify at the hearing but did not show up. In addition, officials from the Uzbek embassy declined invitations to appear before the panel.