Rights groups and Uzbek activists came down hard on the European Union after EU chiefs held talks with Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, whose government has been accused of serious human rights violations.
Rights activists were outraged that the EU hosted Karimov
European Union and NATO chiefs played host to Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in Brussels on Monday amid protests from rights groups and Uzbek activists over what they said was his "abysmal" human rights record.
EU and Uzbek officials signed agreements on opening an EU office in the Central Asian nation's capital, Tashkent, as well as deals on developing solar and hydro power and other infrastructure.
Karimov also met NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss military supply transit routes through Uzbek territory to Afghanistan.
But non-governmental groups criticized the meeting as a signal the EU was easing its push for an end to rights abuses in Uzbekistan, which has been ruled by the authoritative Karimov since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Uzbek writers and human rights activists who have suffered under Karimov protested outside the European Commission during the meeting, which they described as an outrage.
Karimov's regime is one of the world's worst dictatorships, rights groups say
Watchdog Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, highlighted the rights abuses committed by Karimov's regime, including allegations it forced thousands of children to work on the annual Uzbek cotton harvest. The group urged European leaders to call off the talks.
"It's difficult to conceive of a more ruthless leader around the world than Mr. Karimov. For him to be received warmly by [EU Commission President Jose Manuel] Barroso is in a sense a culmination of this gradual capitulation to Uzbekistan," the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, told reporters in Brussels.
Barroso defended the meeting, however, saying improving conditions inside countries like Uzbekistan would be hindered by shunning national leaders.
"The European Union follows a policy of critical, conditional and comprehensive engagement with Uzbekistan," Barroso said in a statement. "It is through ... a robust eye-to-eye dialogue, and not an empty-chair policy, that we can further the EU's unanimously agreed policy of engagement most effectively."
'The worst dictatorships'
Those comments were countered by Andrew Strohlein from the conflict-prevention NGO International Crisis Group, who said the Karimov regime was "worse than your average dictatorship."
Rallies in Andijan in 2005 led to deadly clashes with police
"Torture is endemic, and [Karimov] is well known for the Andijan massacre of 2005, when his troops fired automatic weapons from the top of armored personnel carriers at peaceful demonstrators, killing, we estimate, 700," Strohlein told Deutsche Welle.
"The three probably worst dictators are in North Korea, Burma and Uzbekistan," Strohlein added. "These are the worst dictatorships, and you can't really imagine Kim Jong Il coming to this town and getting such a reception from Barroso, and that's what you have here. And it's only because people don't know Uzbekistan that Barroso gets away with this."
Author: Darren Mara (Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Nancy Isenson