10/18/2007, 00.00
UZBEKISTAN – EUROPEAN UNION
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EU sanctions suspension, an inappropriate reward

Human rights activists criticise the EU for suspending sanctions against Uzbekistan. They stress that there are still many political prisoners in the Central Asian country and that torture is still used systematically. For analysts the reason behind the decision is a desire for closer ties with an energy-rich country.

Brussels (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Human rights groups and other critics have reacted with bitterness to a European Union decision to ease sanctions against Uzbekistan. On Monday EU foreign ministers decided to suspend for six months the Union’s visa ban on eight top Uzbek officials. The penalties were imposed two years ago in the wake of the killings of protesters in the Uzbek city of Andijan, something that Tashkent had always resented.

Explaining the EU decision, the EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU remained "very concerned" about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan. But she highlighted Uzbek participation with the EU over the last year in two discussions on the Andijan events, one round of human rights talks, as well as the conditional release of some political prisoners. It is thus possible to work together, “step by step in order to improve the situation of human rights.”

“We've had two UN rapporteurs on torture go to the country in the last few years and say that torture is systematic, it's part of the entire system, the entire apparat in the country,” said Andrew Stroehlein, the media director for the International Crisis Group. “It's a brutal torturing regime.”

Human Rights Watch called on Brussels to subordinate such move to concrete steps like freeing political prisoners, calling the move a travesty and an inappropriate reward for Tashkent.

The EU slapped sanctions on Tashkent amid an international outcry after Uzbek authorities forcefully ended an uprising in Andijan in May 2005, killing hundreds. The total number of killed is unknown because Uzbekistan has always refused an international commission of enquiry.

The EU decision is a compromise between members like Germany and Portugal who want to lift the sanctions to improve ties to the energy-rich country, and those like the United Kingdom and Sweden who want human rights improvement before dropping sanctions.

In six months, the EU must decide whether Uzbekistan has done enough to meet the conditions attached to the October 15 decision. These include honouring the country's international obligations relating to fundamental rights and the rule of law, releasing of all jailed human rights defenders, and granting international relief organisations access to political prisoners.

However, EU officials say it is understood that the visa ban is highly unlikely to be re-imposed. There is no precedent for an EU suspension of sanctions being overturned. "It would take another Andijan," one official said.

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