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The Guardian May 17, 2005

Links to regime limit UK and US response

British criticism of human rights record undermined by fear of affecting key American interests

By Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Julian Borger in Washington

Britain has been increasing sales to Uzbekistan of equipment with potential military use, despite condemnation of its human rights record by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw.

Export licences have been approved for "strategic exports" ever since Uzbekistan became an ally in the "war on terror". The government said last year it approved export licences for "armoured personnel carriers", which could be used for internal repression.

Last night the Foreign Office said this referred to one ex-military Land Rover which was sold to a private firm to transport gold bullion. The government also approved open-ended licences for the sale of "all-wheel drive vehicles". The approval makes it impossible to know the value of the equipment sold.

Official figures also show that in 2003 the government approved open-ended export licences to Uzbekistan for a wide range of equipment, including "military, security and paramilitary goods and arms".
These are described as being "for the use of the US government within Uzbekistan". But critics of the arms trade say there is a danger the US will pass on the British equipment to Uzbek forces.

Andy McLean, deputy director of Saferworld, an independent thinktank, said yesterday that the trade with Uzbekistan showed the need to strengthen the EU code of conduct covering arms exports.

The FO said export licensing policy was "always kept under constant review".

Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2004, said yesterday he was unaware of any military sales. He said he had knocked back any items such as night-vision goggles.

Britain has a twin, and contradictory, approach to Uzbekistan, combining criticism of its human rights record with a desire not to upset the US.

Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad airbase, known to US forces as K2 or Camp Stronghold Freedom, has been vital to military operations in Afghanistan. The first US military transport plane landed there only days after the September 11 attack. Before that, contact between the US and Uzbekistan was limited, other than regular criticism of Uzbekistan's rights record in the state department's annual review. On October 5 2001, Uzbekistan formally permitted the US to base troops there. Thousands remain.

John Pike, the head of the military analysis website GlobalSecurity.org, said close ties with Uzbekistan also serve longer-term goals. "It's one more piece of the Soviet Union that's in our power rather than in Moscow's power.

"It's also one more piece of the encirclement of Iran. Right now, it's a base for operations in Afghanistan. What it might become 10 years from now is anyone's guess. It's part of the 'great game'."

Germany, too, has a base in Uzbekistan, at Termez, for Afghan operations where its troops are part of a Nato force.

Britain, unlike the US, has no strategic interest in Uzbekistan. It has landing rights at the Khanabad base but seldom exercises them.

The other main American interest in Uzbekistan is intelligence-gathering. UK involvement is limited.

The New York Times said on May 1 that the US routinely sends difficult prisoners to Uzbekistan, where torture is commonplace. The paper quoted Mr Murray as part of the corroboration of its story.

But Mr Murray said yesterday the article is only partly correct and he was not aware of prisoners being flown in, other than Uzbeks arrested in Afghanistan, though he added that was bad enough given the fate that awaited them.

The British, through an intelligence-sharing arrangement with the US, will receive much of this information, despite it having been obtained through torture.

The FO's contradictory approach was illustrated earlier this year when Bill Rammell, then a minister, was refused a visa by the Uzbek government because he had been outspoken on human rights.

Such contradictions are mirrored in the US. Last July the state department refused to certify that Uzbekistan had made progress in its human rights record, thereby cutting $18m (£10m) in military and economic aid. Within weeks, however, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Richard Myers arrived in Tashkent and suggested the state department's stand was misguided. He announced new aid of $21m to help Uzbekistan clean up an old Soviet biological weapons facility.

 


Copyright 2005, Guardian Newspapers Limited