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Islam Karimov: Ruler of Uzbekistan who was favoured by West despite his exceptional brutality

Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president, who has died aged 78, was one of the nastiest of the dictators who rose to power in central Asia.

Published: 03rd September 2016 08:06 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd September 2016 08:06 AM   |  A+A-

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Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president, who has died aged 78, was one of the nastiest of the dictators who rose to power in central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union; yet he was a man with whom the West was prepared to do business, and was regarded as a "key ally" in the US-led war against terror.

Karimov grew up and rose to power under the USSR, becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR. In 1991 he repositioned himself and promoted himself to "elected" president of the new independent republic of Uzbekistan.

A man of commanding presence, he adapted old Soviet methods to the new era, replacing the hammer and sickle with a phoenix and crescent moon, and the KGB with a near-identical security bureau, the SNB. Using the excuse of maintaining stability in a turbulent region, he set about imposing one of the most brutal and corrupt dictatorships in the world.

Karimov's economic policies owed nothing to ideas of perestroika and made Stalin's five-year plans look almost enlightened. In the 15 years following independence, he closed the country's borders, slapped a 70 per cent tax on imports, shut down the bazaars, forbade the development of private property rights and imposed stringent price controls.

Soviet era collective farms remained unreformed; laws were passed ending cash trading and forcing all business transactions to go through state-owned banks. Living standards, low even in Soviet times, collapsed. Only Karimov and his cronies prospered thanks to his practice of forcing collective cotton farms to sell their produce to the state at a nominal fee, then selling it on the international market at enormous profit.

Karimov was "re-elected" several times, seldom winning less than 90 per cent of the vote, the result of a ban on all genuine opposition parties. Criticism was ruthlessly suppressed; religious observance was restricted.

By 2005, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 dissidents languished in the country's jails where, according to a UN report of 2002, there was "widespread, rampant and systematic" use of torture, with electrocution, chlorine-filled gas masks, drowning, rape, shooting and savage beatings. In 2002 two of Karimov's critics were boiled alive - an "accident with a kettle", according to the regime.

Not that Karimov made any bones about his methods. "I'm prepared to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm in the republic. If my child chose such a path, I would rip off his head myself," he said.

Yet he became a favoured western protege after becoming the first regional leader to sign up to President Bush's "war on terror" following 9/11. In return for the use of an airbase at Khanabad for "Operation Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, Karimov was rewarded with a full-dress White House reception and American aid worth more than $200 million a year. Later, he was said to have allowed Uzbekistan be used for "rendition", the practice of exporting terror suspects to countries less squeamish about torture than Britain or the US.

There were other considerations. Uzbekistan holds a strategic position at the heart of the Central Asian oil and gas producing region and its support was seen as key to proving the West with an alternative source of fuel to Russia and the Middle East. In 2005 contracts were signed for a US pipeline out of Central Asia over Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea.

Such considerations meant that for many years America and Britain played down some of the less savoury aspects of Karimov's tyranny. In December 2003, for example, the junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Bill Rammell, justifying the development of military cooperation, described Uzbekistan as "a key player in a region of strategic importance to the UK," adding that: "It is important to note that Uzbek armed forces are not implicated in human rights violations."

When in 2004 Craig Murray, Britain's ambassador in Tashkent, spoke out against Karimov's butchery (pointing out embarrassing similarities to the ousted regime in Baghdad), he was sacked.

Karimov routinely labelled all dissidents "Islamic fundamentalists" yet, at least in the early years, the Islamist threat was largely a fiction. Historically the Silk Road khanates were fairly secular places and 70 years of state atheism had extirpated much of the old faith. Independent observers claimed that, though there was an Islamic element, it was moderate in tone. The main dissidents were businessmen unhappy with Karimov's economic incompetence.

Yet under the cloak of "security", it seemed that Karimov could get away with almost anything. In 2004, when he banned leading Western non-governmental organisations from operating in Uzbekistan, there was little protest from Western governments. When he warned in January 2005 that he would use "necessary force" to stamp out democratic unrest, there was no significant change of policy in London or Washington.

But Karimov's attempts to present domestic repression as part of the international "war on terror" looked less than convincing when, during disturbances in the Ferghana Valley region in May 2005, Uzbek troops fired on demonstrators in the town of Andijan, many of them unarmed women and children, killing, by some estimates, 300 people. Trouble had broken out days earlier when protesters broke into a jail and freed thousands of inmates, including 23 businessmen accused of being members of a banned Islamic group.

Such brutality seemed to precipitate a split in the London-Washington axis. While Britain's foreign secretary condemned a "clear abuse of human rights", Washington called for "restraint" from both sides and for the opposition to seek change "through peaceful means, not violence". In a country where people disappeared for joking about their leader, the advice seemed unrealistic.

 

Islam Abduganievich Karimov was born in the Silk Road city of Samarkand on January 30 1938, the son of an ethnic Tajik mother and Uzbek father. Orphaned as a child, he was raised in a state orphanage. He studied Engineering and Economics at university, joined the Tashkent Farm Machinery Plant and, in 1966, moved to Uzbekistan's State Planning Department. His robust support for Communism quickly won him promotion and he became the department's chairman in 1986.

Ironically, it was Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to reform by purging local parties of corrupt officials that provided Karimov with his opening. In 1989, with his main rivals removed from office, he was elected First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party.

In 1991 his hard-line approach led Karimov to support the anti-Gorbachev coup attempt. "If we remain part of the Soviet Union, our rivers will flow with milk. If we don't, our rivers will flow with the blood of our people," he warned. But when the coup failed, he executed an abrupt U-turn. Denouncing the plotters, he outlawed the Communist Party and declared Uzbekistan independent.

Elected to office in a marred presidential election, Karimov swiftly reinvented himself as a patriotic Uzbek Muslim, swearing his oath of office with one hand on the constitution and the other on the Koran. He paid little attention to either. State agencies were renamed, not reformed; busts of Marx and Lenin were replaced by effigies of brutal Uzbek medieval warlords. By 1993 his main rivals were in jail or in exile and a free press all but extinguished.

He extended his term in office through a plebiscite in 1995 and was re-elected in 2000 in a vote in which the only candidate ostensibly running against him announced that he himself had voted for the incumbent president. In 2002, the constitution was amended to allow for seven-year presidential terms.

But as the Soviet-era welfare system disintegrated, hardship fuelled popular discontent and 1998 saw the formation of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which launched guerrilla attacks against the regime from bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Though there is little evidence that the group had support in Uzbekistan itself, Karimov responded with arrests, torture, show trials and executions. Around 50,000 people were rounded up in 1999 alone. In some cases, playing football was presented as evidence that suspects were trying to acquire the fitness that fighters in a holy war would need. In 1998, introducing a law to criminalise unregistered religious meetings, Karimov declared that those he called terrorists "must be shot in the head! If necessary, I'll shoot them myself!"

He was "re-elected" twice more, in 2007 with a reported 88.1 per cent of the vote, and in 2015 with 90.39 per cent. Both elections were widely criticised as being rigged, though the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which include nations from the former USSR and China, held them to be open and democratic.

The official Uzbek presidential website recorded that "for his outstanding contribution to education in Uzbekistan, creation of a state based on democratic laws, guarantee of civil peace and national accord, and for courage", Karimov was awarded the title Hero of Uzbekistan.

His first marriage, to Natalya Petrovna Kuchmi, with whom he had a son, was dissolved. In 1967 he married, secondly, Tatyana Akbarovna, with whom he had two daughters.

The messy divorce of his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, from an American-Uzbek businessman threw the spotlight on the opulent lifestyle of his court. In 2003 a judge in New Jersey awarded Ms Karimova $4.5 million of jewellery, at least $11 million of investments in Dubai and Geneva, and business interests valued at $60 million - including a ski resort, nightclubs and telecommunications investments.

Gulnara was once talked of as a possible successor to her father, but in recent years it appears that she has fallen out with key members of her father's regime and, as of 2015, was reported to be under house arrest, under investigation for corruption. Although some experts on Uzbekistan claim that only Karimov himself could have ordered her arrest, there has also been speculation that the decision to lock her up could also be a sign of the regime's weakness.

Karimov was the subject of frequent reports of ill-health and rumours of secret visits to foreign clinics. He suffered a stroke on August 26.

Islam Karimov, born January 30 1938, death reported September 2 2016

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