Never mind the torture and political prisoners, he's Bush's man

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The Independent Online

In the rogues' gallery of Soviet dinosaurs, the rulers of the central Asian states have pride of place.

In the rogues' gallery of Soviet dinosaurs, the rulers of the central Asian states have pride of place.

Islam Karimov, who has ruled the impoverished republic of Uzbekistan as a dictator for 15 years, may not be the looniest.

That reputation could probably be claimed by his neighbour, President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who in 2002 renamed the months of the calendar - January after himself. But President Karimov could well be the cruellest, accused of torture of opponents, muzzling freedom of speech and jailing up to 6,500 political prisoners.

Mr Karimov, 66, has rarely troubled with elections. In 1989, he became Communist Party leader in Uzbekistan in the then Soviet Union. After independence in 1991, he was the natural choice to become president as the communists kept power.

In 1995, his term of office was extended until 2000 when he was re-elected unopposed. The next presidential elections are next year, when the term is to be extended from five years to seven.

Mr Karimov was born in Samarkand, the orphan son of an ethnic Tajik mother and Uzbek father. He is a former economist who rose through the ranks of the party to the Politburo. "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," Mr Karimov predicted in 1991 as his beloved Soviet empire collapsed.

He took office with one hand on the Koran and the other on the constitution. But his term of office has been troubled by opposition from Islamic militants, who tried to assassinate him in 1999. Since 11 September 2001, he has come into his own, however, thanks to George Bush and the war on terror. After opening an air base to the US military for the war against the Taliban, he was thanked with a visit to the White House.

Despite the human rights abuses in his one-party state, Mr Karimov looks likely to stay as the Bush administration's man in central Asia.

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