Rights groups slate European Union for hosting Uzbek dictator

Secretive talks with a state accused of using child labour in its cotton fields

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The Independent Online

The EU will controversially welcome one of the world's most brutal dictators today after championing human rights and democracy in other oppressed states.

Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, will meet Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato Secretary General, in a move that has caused embarrassment and confusion in Brussels.

Mr Barroso has also drawn criticism for the cloak-and-dagger secrecy in which the visit was planned. Unusually, there has been no media accreditation to cover it, and there will not be a joint press conference, ensuring that Mr Karimov is spared any difficult questions. After news of the meeting became public last week, a spokesman for Mr Barroso claimed that Mr Karimov's invitation came from Nato or the Belgian authorities. But the Belgians insisted that neither the King nor the Foreign Minister would meet Mr Karimov, while Nato sources said it had not invited him either.

Mr Karimov's visit has caused deep unease across the road from Mr Barosso's headquarters where the EU President, Herman Van Rompuy, has declined to meet the autocratic leader "for ideological reasons", his office said.

Mr Karimov has run Uzbekistan since its independence from the Soviet Union and tolerates no dissent. Today is his first official visit to Western Europe since a massacre in 2005 when his troops fired into crowds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan. Human rights groups estimate that at least 300 people were killed, perhaps many more. Uzbekistan's state-controlled television is bound to show repeated images from today's meetings in an attempt to boost Mr Karimov's legitimacy.

The EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre, but these were lifted in 2008, though rights campaigners said the country had made no noticeable progress. Schools close for a month during the cotton harvest, when children as young as seven are forced into the fields to pick the crop and, according to Reporters without Borders, at least 11 journalists are currently jailed in Uzbekistan, while many others have had to flee. "Every day in Uzbekistan, people are harassed, tortured, beaten up or imprisoned simply for speaking out," says Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's European institutions office. "No matter how important trade relations might seem, the EU can't turn a blind eye to gross human rights abuses."

Mr Barroso appears to have made January a month for meetings with some of the former Soviet bloc's most unsavoury leaders. Earlier this month, he travelled to Baku to meet Ilham Aliyev, the repressive President of Azerbaijan, and also visited Turkmenistan, one of the world's most opaque dictatorships. But while both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan have crucial energy supplies that the EU is keen to tap, there are no noticeable trade concessions to be won from Uzbekistan.

The country is strategically important for supplying Nato troops in Afghanistan, but this is not an EU issue. Most of the country's energy resources are contracted to Russia, and it has little else in the way of exports, except the cotton. "If you're going to sell your soul, you should at least get a good price," says Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group in Brussels. "There's absolutely nothing to gain for the EU. It's incomprehensible."

The timing of the visit could not be more embarrassing for Mr Barroso, with the EU condemning the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, and preparing to reimpose sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko's regime in Belarus. The EU had previously banned Mr Lukashenko from entering its nation states, amid a range of other measures. but it lifted the restrictions in 2008 in the hope the move would entice the Belarusian authorities to liberalise. It even hinted at financial aid if recent presidential elections went off smoothly. However, the elections last month returned Mr Lukashenko for a fourth term, and after subsequent protests were broken up by riot police, the EU now plans to reinstate the sanctions.

Mr Barosso's office has been at pains to stress that human rights would be "at the top of the agenda" though it would not clarify whether the Andijan crackdown would be raised.

Mr Karimov is also meeting the EU Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, though experts say it will take at least another five decades before Uzbekistan could start delivering significant amounts of energy to the EU.

This has left many in Brussels wondering why there is one rule for Tashkent and another for Minsk. "Lukashenko is terrible, but Karimov is far, far nastier. It's a far more brutal dictatorship," says Mr Stroehlein.

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