The European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, pressed the Uzbek leader, Islam Karimov, to free political prisoners during a meeting in Brussels on Monday that had drawn wide condemnation from rights groups. Mr Barroso met Mr Karimov to discuss energy and military co-operation, as well as human rights, but activists criticised the meeting as a signal that the European Union was reducing pressure for an end to violations in Uzbekistan.
The visit came at a time when the EU is trying to clamp down on human rights abuses in Belarus through sanctions, but rights groups say a willingness to meet politicians with a record of abuse damages the EU's credibility.
Human Rights Watch said yesterday that the EU's approach to Uzbekistan was an example of the bloc's failure to back words with action to force repressive regimes to respect human rights. The US-based group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said: "It's difficult to conceive of a more ruthless leader around the world than Mr Karimov. For him to be received warmly by Mr Barroso is in a sense a culmination of this gradual capitulation to Uzbekistan."
Mr Barroso defended his decision to meet Mr Karimov, saying it gave him an opportunity to address the concerns of rights groups, such as political prisoners. "The European Union follows a policy of critical, conditional and comprehensive engagement with Uzbekistan," he said in a statement.