BAT under pressure to quit 'dire' Uzbekistan

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British American Tobacco is to face pressure to pull out of its investment in Uzbekistan, the former Soviet state strongly criticised for its human rights record.

Earlier this month, the Government asked BAT to withdraw from the brutal dictatorship in Burma. In Uzbekistan BAT has a joint venture with the regime of President Karimov, which has been strongly criticised by organisations including Amnesty International for its "dire" record on human rights and "systematic" use of torture.

"It's difficult to overstate the awfulness of what's going on," said Steve Crawshaw, UK director of the international group Human Rights Watch.

Radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir, a strong force in Central Asia, is brutally repressed in Uzbekistan and human rights campaigners are often detained and harassed. The UK arm of the non-violent political party, whose name means "Islamic Liberation Party", has written to companies involved in the region, including BAT, Coca-Cola and the small UK-listed mining company Oxus Gold. It requested a meeting in order to express its concerns, and called for the companies to pull out of the country.

A lack of response prompted a demonstration outside the headquarters of Oxus Gold last week and a similar event aimed at BAT is shortly to be organised.

A report by the British Helsinki Human Rights Group found that tobacco farmers in Uzbekistan, who depend on BAT's monopoly to sell their crops, face a situation "not far removed from slave labour" on some farms. The report said they received only 1 per cent of the proceeds of BAT's popular "Khon" cigarettes.

BAT said it operated to its normal high standards in Uzbekistan, and had worked to develop domestic industries in the country.

"We understand and respect people's views and concerns on human rights. However, we believe that judging how countries should be governed is a responsibility for the international political community, not for busi- nesses," said a spokesperson.