Leading article: A betrayal of principle

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The Independent Online

It seems that Uzbekistan is coming in from the cold. The European Union has agreed to suspend travel restrictions on four members of the Uzbek regime and there is a promise of a further easing of sanctions if President Islam Karimov moves his country further down the path to democracy.

It is worth reminding ourselves why these restrictions were imposed in the first place. They were an outraged response to the massacre in the city of Andijan on 13 May 2005. The Government says 187 "terrorists" died on that day. Human rights groups claim at least 700 were killed, including women and children, when troops fired upon unarmed protesters.

Yet the disgust of the world seems to have dissipated in two years. The European Union's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner now argues that suspending sanctions is the best way to influence the regime for the better.

Are things improving in Uzbekistan? True, there have been two rounds of EU-Uzbek talks on the subject of Andijan. Two human rights advocates have been released from custody and the death penalty has been abolished. But no one acquainted with the regime believes these are more than token acts of reform. Uzbekistan refuses to allow an independent commission to investigate the Andijan massacre. The regime has worked tirelessly to close down independent media and political opposition groups. And the United Nations and human rights groups have evidence that the Uzbek security services are continuing to torture opponents of the regime.

The real reason why the visa ban has been lifted has little to do with encouraging Uzbekistan down the path to democracy. It is primarily about access to the country's natural resources. Germany, with one eye on Uzbekistan's large natural gas fields, has applied considerable pressure on the EU to ease sanctions.

The Uzbek policy of playing off the East against the West is paying off. After the break up of the Soviet Union, President Karimov forged links with the West to move out of Moscow's sphere of influence. US bombers operated from Uzbekistan's Khanabad airbase during the 2001 Afghanistan campaign. That military co-operation came to an end after Andijan. But Uzbekistan simply looked to China and Russia for commercial and military alliances.

Now the EU has abased its own principles out of fear of losing sought-after gas supply contracts. Once again, the West is putting economic concerns before human rights. And this easing of sanctions constitutes another betrayal of the Uzbek people.