White-knuckle control on the old Silk Road

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The Independent Online
SHE COULD pass for a lollipop lady. She is a small, cheery, woman with a winning grin ornamented by a couple of finger widths of gold buck teeth.

She loves a natter, too, although here the good humour fades as she hones in on her theme: the human rights abuses of Uzbekistan, third most populous of the ex-Soviet republics.

If proof were needed that dissidents come in many forms, it could be found in Mukhdabar Akhmedova. She is 60, a devout Muslim, and a brave, angry and alarmingly rare critic of her nation's leadership.

Because of her outspoken views, she has been bugged, followed, harassed and dispatched to prison for six months (for slandering the president). It has not silenced her. She still says the people have been "cheated", but most of them are too scared to say so. And, in her view, the chief villain of the piece is the president, Islam Karimov.

The 23 million people of Uzbekistan are hovering between the old Soviet world,with its knee-jerk repressive and paternalistic impulses, and a new society, a secular nation that can hope, one distant day, to be reasonably free. Now, as Ms Akhmedova points out at length, the former overwhelmingly prevails.

The media is heavily censored. Only a couple of Russian newspapers are allowed. When The Independent discussed posting a copy of the newspaper to two junior government officials, they looked worried and insisted that the package be sent to their superiors.

Uzbeks - mindful that it is a crime to "offend the honour and dignity" of the president - talk carefully with outsiders. It took no more than a three-minute conversation with a woman selling jewellery, in a gold market in the 2,500-year-old Silk Road city of Bukhara, before a hefty man in a black leather jacket appeared at my side. The woman spotted him first: "We have a great president," she suddenly told me.

Foreign journalists passing through Uzbekistan's airports are handled by Intourist - the Soviet agency used by the KGB to monitor outsiders. And visiting correspondents are expected to report to the "khakim"- the local administration - on arrival in a new town.

The man behind this authoritarian system is the 60-year-old Mr Karimov, who made the transition from Communist Party boss to president using skills honed under the Soviet system.

His election after independence in 1991 was widely seen as neither free nor fair. He has since shored up power by extending his office to 2000 in a suspect 1995 referendum; he controls the judiciary, parliament, and the KGB-style security services, the NSS. The latter have repeatedly caused concern among the international human rights community. "Police and NSS used torture, harassment, illegal searches and wiretaps and arbitrarily detained and arrested opposition activities on false charges," said a 1997 US State Department report on Uzbekistan.

Main opposition parties - such as Erk (Freedom) and Birlik (Unity) - have been shut down; almost all opposition has been driven underground.

The government says it is seeking to build a "secular democratic state", and to widen the institutes of civil government.

Placards bear the president's epigrammatic sayings in the streets and public buildings. His works are taught in schools. In short, Mr Karimov is a man who, as one Western observer put it, exerts "white knuckle control" over his fellow citizens.

Is this the real Mr Karimov? His apologists say, no. They cite the mess that Russia is now in after trying to rush through "shock therapy" reforms. Rome, they argue, was not built in a day.

Meanwhile, Ms Akhmedova intends to keep up the pressure. The authorities won't like it, but that does not bother her. "They can't touch me now," she said, cheerily, as we left her tumbledown two-roomed house in the capital, Tashkent. "There would be an international scandal. I am too well known."

Let's hope so.