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Uzbekistan: Repression at Home, a Brighter Image Abroad

Leveraging its strategic position in turbulent Central Asia, Uzbekistan has whitewashed its image in the West while tightening the repression at home.

Stuck in a tumultuous neighborhood with many flashpoints, Uzbekistan is an ally in the West's war in Afghanistan. Five years ago, Uzbekistan's government ordered a massacre of peaceful protesters in the town of Andijan, a watershed event that pushed Washington to abandon its military base here and prodded the European Union to impose sanctions on Central Asia's most populous state.

A remarkable thing happened since then: Uzbekistan's rulers managed to repair relations with the West while stepping up persecution at home. The Europeans dropped the sanctions, a move encouraged by Germany which maintains a military base in Uzbekistan. Washington has been avoiding serious criticism of the regime, while offering praise for the government's help in Afghanistan, and for its dubious stewardship of the Uzbek economy. Though the U.S. no longer has a military base here, Washington is using Uzbekistan as a major conduit for non-lethal supplies and equipment for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan's relations with the West are at a five-year high.

All of this troubles Uzbekistan's human-rights defenders who routinely face beatings, harassment and imprisonment as they try to expose the regime's excesses. Their case files describe a Gulag-like system of political detention and repression in a country where security services maintain an iron grip on the frightened population, opposition is eliminated, and critical voices are routinely suppressed.

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