Monday,25 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Monday,25 September, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Uzbekistan loses its erstwhile leader

Obituary: Islam Karimov:  (1938 - 2016)

Uzbekistan has known only one president since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and he ruled it with an iron fist till his death last week. Although the Uzbek authorities officially announced Islam Karimov’s death on 2 September, doubts remain about the accuracy of that date and the nature of his illness amid inconsistencies in the official narrative. In a country ruled by authoritarianism, zero tolerance for dissent that spawned a decades-old culture of fear, the demise of its Western-backed autocratic leader — who never named a successor — evokes uncertainty and speculation of a protracted power struggle.

A former member of the Uzbek government told the BBC that groups close to power wanted to have a clear agreement over a possible successor before the president was officially declared dead. The Uzbek constitution stipulates that the head of senate assumes power in the absence of the president, or if he is incapable of performing his duties, until elections are held within three months. But senate chair Nigmatilla Yuldashev, who appears to be considered the de facto president, is not viewed as a likely successor.

None of Karimov’s likely successors are expected to reverse his authoritarian policies.

The front runner, Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 58, who has been in power for 13 years and is rumoured to have Russia’s backing, developed a lurid reputation for aggressive behaviour, and is expected to pursue a more repressive policy than Karimov should he become president. His deputy and finance minister, Rustam Azimov, 57, is also a strong contender who advocates more liberal policies and might be a welcome successor in the eyes of Western states. Azimov who is the least controversial contender, has been in power since 1998 and was considered close to Karimov.

The third candidate is the powerful head of the national security services since 1995, Rustam Inoyatov (72). It is widely rumoured that Inoyatov orchestrated the fall from grace of Karimov’s glamorous daughter, business woman and once heiress to be, Gulnara, and placed her under house arrest in 2014. Despite his influence and power, Inoyatov, who is rarely seen in public, has displayed few signs of wanting to succeed Karimov.

Raised in a state-run orphanage in Samarkand, Karimov studied mechanical engineering and then earned a masters degree in economics. He worked his way up in the Uzbek Communist Party. After assuming several government and ministerial posts, Karimov became president of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. A year later he declared the independence of Uzbekistan, later winning the nascent republic’s first presidential election with 89 per cent of the vote.

Karimov said he espoused a secular state. In practice, the legitimacy of his rule was cemented in an anti-Islamist policy. His efforts to realign himself with the West became evident after the 11 September attacks, allowing the US to establish a military base in the southern city of Khanabad, which was used for the war against the Taliban. In return Uzbekistan received generous military aid from the US.

By then Karimov had earned an international reputation for his repressive policies. In a 2002 speech by the UK’s ambassador to Uzbekistan at a human rights conference in Tashkent, Craig Murray talked about the “prevalence of torture in Uzbekistani prisons” and described the case of two prisoners — Muzafar Avazov and Khuzniddin Alimov — who were boiled alive.

In an interview with The Guardian a year later, after he was dismissed from his job, Murray provided first-hand evidence of the Uzbek authorities’ “routine methods”. He said that during his time as UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, people came to him very often after being tortured. “This includes homosexual and heterosexual rape of close relatives in front of the victim; rape with objects such as broken bottles; asphyxiation; pulling out of fingernails; smashing of limbs with blunt objects; and use of boiling liquids, including complete immersion of the body. This is not uncommon. Thousands of people a year suffer from this torture at the hands of the authorities.”

Murray told the Guardian about the case of one Uzbek literature professor who wrote a letter to then British prime minister Tony Blair and US president George W Bush on the torture of dissidents in his country. As a consequence, the mutilated body of his 18-year-old grandson appeared on his doorstep, with one arm immersed in “boiling fluid until the skin had begun to peel off”.

Reports by the UN and international rights groups accused the Karimov regime of institutionalised and rampant torture. But it was the Andijan Massacre of 2005, where security forces killed hundreds of protesters in this eastern Uzbek city, that grabbed the most attention. There were reports of unmarked mass graves and security officers kidnapping wounded people from hospitals.

The Uzbek authorities said 187 Islamist militants were killed and hundreds sentenced to 22-year prison sentences after accusing them of planning a coup with the aid of Western powers.

The massacre affected Karimov’s international standing and led to Western sanctions on Uzbekistan until 2009, and the withdrawal of the US military base in Khanabad.

Karimov’s iron fist did not loosen, as he continued to quash dissent, impose state control over the media, and hinder any growth in civil society institutions.

He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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