Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 16th December 2003.

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Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 11:00 am, 16th December 2003

I am pleased to initiate this timely debate, which provides the House with a perhaps overdue opportunity to examine Government policy on Uzbekistan.

I start with two quotations. The Minister will recognise the first, because he referred to it in a speech on 25 November:

"There is no such thing any more as a quarrel in a faraway country which is indifferent to our interests . . . States where human rights are gravely violated, because the rule of law has broken down or because only repression and violence can sustain a ruling clique in power, are the main source of risk to our and our allies' security . . . So promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law is right at the heart of working for our interests."

The second quote is from one of our ambassadors, who said:

"We believe there to be between 7,000 and 10,000 people in detention whom we would consider as political and/or religious prisoners. No government has the right to use the war against terrorism as an excuse for the persecution of those with a deep personal commitment to the Islamic religion, and who pursue their views by peaceful means."

The Minister was speaking in general terms, but the ambassador was referring to a real situation—that in Uzbekistan. I want to examine the assessment that the ambassador made of human rights in that country in a speech that I understand was sanctioned by the Foreign Office. That assessment should be taken more seriously by the House and the Government in their dealings with the Uzbek authorities. I also want to ensure that, having captured one tyrant this week in Iraq, we do not allow or encourage another to rise in Uzbekistan.

Although, of the former Soviet Republics, it is Georgia that has captured our attention in the past few weeks, it is perhaps Uzbekistan that should give us the greatest concern about human rights and democracy in the long run. It is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights, and neither the January 2003 referendum to extend the president's term of office, nor previous elections, were judged to be free or fair by international standards. The Parliament consists almost entirely of officials appointed by the president and members of parties that support him, and meets for just a few days a year. The Government influence the courts heavily in both civil and criminal cases.

The human rights record remains very poor, with both the police and the national security service—the former KGB—committing numerous serious human rights abuses, including causing the death of several citizens in custody, torture and beatings. The UN special rapporteur on torture visited the country in November 2002 and found poor prison conditions and arbitrary detentions by the police, often for bribes, particularly of Muslims suspected of "extremist"—that is, non-state sanctioned—sympathies. There was also planting of evidence on persons. Some 6,500 persons were in prison for political or religious reasons.

The Government in Uzbekistan restrict freedom of speech and press, and ban unauthorised public meetings and demonstrations, and the police forcibly disrupt peaceful protests. Internal passports are required for movement within the country and permission is required to move from one city or district to another. The Government restrict freedom of religion. Members of domestic human rights groups are abused and targeted for arrest. Only one such domestic group has been recognised to date. In short, citizens cannot exercise their right to change their Government peacefully.

That damning criticism comes not from Human Rights Watch or the much-maligned Amnesty International, but from the 2002 country report on Uzbekistan by the US State Department bureau of democracy, human rights and labour. Those are comments to which we should pay a great deal of attention. Perhaps we should add to them another matter that, for understandable reasons, may not concern the US Government so much: the use of the death penalty in Uzbekistan. Its use is a state secret, but Human Rights Watch has identified at least 22 people who were sentenced to death last year. When that is taken with the report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who found that torture was systematic and that

"many confessions obtained through torture and other illegal means were then used as evidence in trials," including

"in trials that are leading to the death penalty or to very severe punishment", its use becomes even more abhorrent.

Independent human rights organisations such Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have scores of examples of the abuses faced by peaceful opponents of the Uzbek regime. Let me share just two examples with the House. Two women, Larisa Vdovina and human rights defender Elena Urlaeva, were forcibly confined in a psychiatric hospital to stop their human rights activities. They were detained on 27 August 2002 during a demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice building to protest against human rights abuses. They were transferred to Tashkent City psychiatric hospital the next day. Elena Urlaeva was released at the end of December 2002. The whole episode is horribly reminiscent of the way in which the old Soviet system abused the psychiatric hospital system.

I will continue with the evidence that, at least in Uzbekistan, Soviet-style suppression continues under another name. The second example is even more grisly. In August 2002, the body of Muzafar Avazov was brought from Jaslyk prison to his family for burial. He had been imprisoned for membership of a proscribed Islamic party. In May 2002, Human Rights Watch reported that prison authorities had beaten Muzafar Avazov and put him in a punishment cell for stating that nothing could stop him performing his prayers. Prisoners are often placed in such cells for praying or refusing to ask for forgiveness from the Uzbek president. A 35-year-old father of four, Avazov's body showed signs of burns on the legs, buttocks, lower back and arms. Some 60 to 70 per cent. of the body was burned. Doctors who saw the body reported that such burns could have been caused only by immersing Avazov in boiling water. They also reported that there was a large, bloody wound on the back of the head, heavy bruising on the forehead and side of the neck, and that his hands had no fingernails.

Uzbekistan has perhaps a worse human rights record than Zimbabwe—I know that that will interest you, Sir Nicholas—but it has received little attention in this House. Its importance is due not only to the perspicacity of the Minister when he reworded John Donne for a globalised world, but to the fact that both the US Government and the UK Government have regarded Uzbekistan as an ally in their war on terrorism. I understand that, to that end, the country has received more than $200 million of aid from the US Government, including some $70 million used directly to support its state security system, which, as I have made clear, is oppressive to say the least. Uzbekistan has also been given favourable treatment under the UK arms sales regime, which I will consider later.

Hon. Members may well be aware that certain countries, such as Zimbabwe, Burma, Argentina, Cyprus, India and Pakistan, feature on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office list of territories in respect of which arms restrictions of one sort or another apply. All told, some 40 countries are on the list, but unfortunately Uzbekistan is not one of them. Indeed, despite the prevalence of internal repression, Uzbekistan is one of those favoured few countries for which open individual export licences are granted. In 2002, five such licences were granted, mainly for dual-use equipment.

Uzbekistan is also supported by EU overseas aid. The EU-Uzbekistan Co-operation Council implements a partnership agreement. However, the EU and the UK seem to have missed an opportunity to wring from the Uzbek Government specific commitments on human rights, allied to that partnership agreement. Similarly, both the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have seen their meek criticisms of the Uzbek Administration treated with disdain, to the extent that, at the meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development this year in Uzbekistan, the president did not condemn the use of torture, as he was expected to do.

Baroness Symons, in the other place, has described the relationship between the UK and Uzbekistan as one of critical engagement:

"We must proceed with the Government's policy of critical engagement; it is through such dialogue that we hope to bring Uzbekistan to a better understanding of its obligations."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 11 November 2003; Vol. 654, c. 1214.]

To date there has been precious little dialogue and little understanding of obligations, certainly on the part of the Uzbek Government. Only two weeks ago, they cancelled an expected conference on the use of the death penalty.

I conclude with some specific questions for the Minister on our relationship with Uzbekistan and offer some suggestions as to how we might improve that relationship to the benefit of human rights. First, I understand there will be a further meeting of the EU-Uzbek Co-operation Council early next year. Will the Minister confirm the location and date of that meeting and state what specific obligations under human rights he expects the council and the partnership agreement to set out as a condition of further EU support for Uzbekistan?

Will the Minister take the opportunity to look at the words of Baroness Symons, who said that

"the fact is that Uzbekistan has not been a traditional market for UK defence exporters—primarily because of its human rights record"?—[Hansard, House of Lords, 11 November 2003; Vol. 654, c. 1213.]

Although I accept the validity of those words, I ask the Minister to consider the fact that they are an inadequate safeguard against unwelcome exports under the open licence system. In other countries—Israel comes to mind—we have seen exports with dual use used in a military manner and an offensive way against a civilian population. We should not allow exports from this country to be used in that manner in Uzbekistan. Will the Minister review the open licence system and confirm that the Government find the Uzbek record on human rights so poor as to demand an arms embargo?

Will the Minister pressure the Uzbek Government to ensure that the conference on the death penalty, which is scheduled to take place on 5 December, goes ahead, and that civil rights groups in Uzbekistan have the opportunity to take part without harassment? Will he urge the Uzbek authorities to make public their statistics on the use of the death penalty and to disclose the locations of prisoners' burials, which are often withheld from families, and to release their bodies to their families?

Will the Minister ensure that the UK takes a leading role in the EU, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in setting firm standards and a timetable for improvement on the record of human rights, to be met by the Uzbek Government as a condition of any further aid? I believe that the answers to those questions are, at least in part, key tests of the Minister's claim, made in his speech on 25 November, that

"human rights and the rule of law is right at the heart of working for our interests."

I have yet to mention the name of the Uzbek President, Islam Karimov. He has dominated the leadership of Uzbekistan since 1989, when he was the Communist party leader of what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The following year, he became Uzbek president and he continued in the post after independence. He has won every election on grounds that are dubious by any international standards. He won his first election with 88 per cent. of the vote. In 2003, his Parliament, filled with his supporters, passed a law granting him immunity from prosecution for his activities as president should he cease to hold the post. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, maintains a Soviet-style dictatorship over his country. In Uzbekistan, we see the continuation of the malignant human rights record that existed under the USSR.

I hope that the Minister will assure the Chamber that in the future we will not have cause to be ashamed of our support of and co-operation with the Uzbek president, and that all steps necessary will be taken to ensure that the human rights record of Uzbekistan—which some would argue has improved slightly over the past few months—continues to improve and that Uzbekistan meets the standards that we should demand of it as a country that receives aid from both the UK Government and the EU.