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Uzbeks Vote to Extend Presidential Term - 2002-01-28

Voters in Uzbekistan have approved a referendum extending the presidential term from five to seven years. The referendum, whose passage was widely predicted, has been critisized by human rights groups as a bid to prolong the presidency of Islam Karimov.

The outcome of the vote was never in doubt. Election officials in Uzbekistan say the referendum was overwhelmingly approved, with only 8.9 percent of the votes against it.

Turnout for the Sunday balloting was estimated at more than 91 percent of the country's 13 million eligible voters.

Former Communist Party boss Karimov has been in power since 1990, when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic. He was elected president by popular vote the following year, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Two years ago Mr. Karimov was re-elected with more than 92 percent of the vote in a ballot that was criticized by the international community as being neither free nor fair.

Critics charge that Mr. Karimov has routinely suppressed free speech and jails his political opponents. The Uzbek leader denies that is so.

Despite what outside observers consider his authoritarian style of government, the 63-year-old president is seen by many voters as a source of political stability in Uzbekistan.

Mr. Karimov has gained added international stature with his support for the U.S.-led military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. But some human rights organizations, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, say President Karimov believes that his support for Washington's war on terrorism safeguards him from Western criticism of his human rights record.

There are about 1500 U.S. troops based in Uzbekistan and a bridge in the southern part of the country is a vital link in delivering aid to neighboring Afghanistan.

Mr. Karimov had argued that extending the presidential term of office would strengthen democracy. The State Department decided against sending observers to the vote, saying Mr. Karimov's re-election in 2000 was neither free nor fair.