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Uzbekistan's human rights record came under international scrutiny again this week. Human rights groups are concerned about the trial of an elderly woman, who they say is being persecuted for publicising her son's killing. Fatima Mukadirova, 62, is accused of attempting to undermine the constitution of Uzbekistan and distributing extremist literature advocating an Islamic state.

Mukadirova's son, Muzafar Avazov was allegedly beaten and tortured to death by prison officers in 2002 for refusing to abandon his religious convictions and attempting to practice religious rites in prison. He was serving long terms for religious extremism and for being a member of the outlawed Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement. The case became famous, in part because there are graphic photographs of his mutilated body and an unusually high level of international attention. The corpse was returned to the family with sixty to seventy percent burns, his lower body scarlet to the chest.

A delegation from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), headed by Torsten Gersfelt, Chairman of the Board Steering Group, arrived in Tashkent on Monday for a five-day monitoring mission. Along with meeting government officials and representatives of the business and diplomatic communities, the delegation also met NGOs. In March 2003, the EBRD published its strategy for Uzbekistan, which set forth how the development bank might remain a key investor in Uzbekistan's private and public sectors. The bank committed itself to monitor progress on - and review within a year - seven bench marks that would accelerate Uzbekistan’s political and economic reform. The delegation will report back to the board of directors, which will, within a few weeks, consider the future course of the bank’s relationship with Tashkent. The EBRD’s cumulative investments in Uzbekistan stand at some US $660 million. In 2003 the Bank committed $32 million through five projects. Staying in Uzbekistan, newly appointed US Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Jon Purnell said at his first news conference in the country that US aid to Uzbekistan, would continue as normal. International press reports over recent weeks speculated that Washington might cut aid because of perceived lack of progress on human rights. "No assistance will be reduced. The assistance programme of the US to Uzbekistan remains unchanged," he said on Monday. Commenting on the issue of re-registration of international NGOs in the country, Purnell said that they were working with various NGOs to help them meet new registration requirements and they had also bilateral agreement with the government of Uzbekistan, which governed the role of US-based NGOs working in the country. "I see no reason to make any assumption that our NGOs are going to experience any obstacle. We are looking forward that they continue their work in Uzbekistan,” he ascertained.

However, Uzbekistan was not listed among 63 countries that have met US administration criteria to be considered for a share of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), an unprecedented assistance programme initiated by President Bush that has received wide bipartisan support and $1 billion in funding from Congress, the US State Department announced. The list includes only two Central Asian countries, entitled to aid - Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while Uzbekistan along with Turkmenistan, have been excluded.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry re-iterated on Monday the need to fight illicit drug trafficking via Central Asia, one of the primary trafficking corridors to Russia and on to western Europe. Kamol Dostmatov, head of the national centre for drug control under the Uzbek Cabinet of Ministers, said that it was high time to fight against drug expansion and transit via the territory of the Central Asian region, as well as Uzbekistan. "Drug dealers are trying to use our territory for illegal transportation of drugs to Europe and we need to prevent this," he said.

The Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded that the 2003 Afghan opium harvest of 3,600 mt was the second-biggest recorded, surpassed only by the bumper production of 4,600 mt of opium in 1999, a year before Taliban hardliners banned its cultivation. A further cause for concern is that opium poppies are now being grown in 28 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, against 18 in 1999. On Thursday, Uzbekistan and the World Bank signed a $74.55 million project on drainage, irrigation and wetlands improvement, local media reported. The project signed by the Uzbek Finance Minister, Mamarizo Normurodov and Martin Raiser, the World Bank's country manager, is aimed at increasing the productivity of irrigated agriculture, employment and incomes in the poor western region of Karakalpakstan, improving water quality of the Amu Darya River by safe disposal of drainage effluent, and enhancing the quality of wetlands in the Amu Darya delta. The project will also develop institutions for improving water management and maintenance of irrigation and drainage systems, and for promoting sustainable irrigated agriculture through participatory irrigation management. Uzbekistan joined the World Bank in 1992. The current Country Assistance Strategy and programme in Uzbekistan comprises planned lending of up to $150 million during the three years 2002-04. The sum of IBRD / IDA commitments to Uzbekistan amounts to $ 599 million.

In Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported on Monday that about 100 schools have been closed in the northeastern Pavlodar region, including all schools in the provincial capital, due to an outbreak of acute respiratory diseases and flu. The report said that over the weekend, 1,600 more people had been infected and over 10,000 people were presently suffering from respiratory diseases in the region. As a result, the threshold figures for acute respiratory diseases and flu in Pavlodar, the population of which numbers 800,000, had increased by 29 per cent.

On Wednesday, key witnesses testified to systematic ballot-rigging by Kazakh election officials local elections, in the first civil court case of its kind, closely watched by western observers. The case brought by anti-corruption campaigner Assylbek Kazakhmetov is the first in this former Soviet republic to be supported by substantive documentary, video and photographic evidence, observers have said. Violations at municipal elections held last autumn "were so numerous as to make fair competition impossible," an election observer said during heated exchanges at the hearing in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty.

In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, the Associated Press reported on Monday that Carlos Pascual, U.S. State Department coordinator for assistance to Europe and Eurasia, expressed concern that the legal framework for elections next year in the country remained unclear. "The election law has still not been published. The law to register parties has still not been passed. It remains to be seen what kind of freedom is given to the media to report on the views of different candidates and political parties,'' he said during a visit to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.

On Wednesday Pascual urged Central Asian nations to open their borders for regional trade and foster economic development. "We truly believe that it will be good for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan if indeed there can be more open economic cooperation," he said in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, adding that he intended to raise the issue in Uzbekistan, his next stop after Tajikistan as part of a regional tour.

Kyrgyzstan has banned the import of all poultry products and birdseed from Southeast Asia and China as a precaution against bird flu, officials said Wednesday. Health and veterinary officials and all hospitals were on high alert should any bird flu cases surface in Kyrgyzstan, AP quoted Sabirjan Abdikarimov, director of the sanitation and anti-epidemic department at the health Ministry as saying. Kyrgyzstan shares a 1,084 km long border with northwestern China, and has two border checkpoints.

Kyrgyz prosecutors are investigating allegations that police mishandled detainees. Several Bishkek district police officers were under investigation for allegedly causing deliberate psychological damage to a boy and girl, both aged 17, by illegally holding them in pre-trial custody with adults, Asan Kangheldiyev, spokesman for the Bishkek chief prosecutor's office, said on Wednesday, adding that the investigation was launched in December. In November, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev signed a law criminalising torture and other types of inhumane treatment of prisoners, with punishments ranging from three to five years in jail.

Two unknown men robbed an independent media resource centre in southern Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, beating up a guard and leaving a threatening message for journalists, Ernis Mamyrkanov, the centre's director said. According to him, the attackers took equipment worth $5,500 from the centre, that supports independent journalists. The assailants told the guard: "We will get to these journalists that keep writing about us," Mamyrkanov said.

Going to Tajikistan, the Tajik news agency Asia-Plus reported on Wednesday that a government delegation, led by the president Emomali Rahmonov's adviser on economic issues, Fayzullo Kholboboyev, left for the UK the same day to attend an extraordinary meeting of Tajikistan's donors in London. The report said that the meeting, scheduled for 9-10 February, will discuss projects which the Tajik government wants to implement in the near future, including state investment and poverty alleviation programmes.

Russia has forged an agreement with Afghanistan and Tajikistan to set up anti-drug offices in the two Central Asian countries in an effort to stem drug trafficking, Alexander Fedorov, deputy head of Russia's anti-drug committee said on Thursday. "We have reached an accord on opening offices in Afghanistan and Tajikistan," he was quoted as saying by the Itar-Tass news agency. Tajikistan - with its porous borders and poorly resourced security services - is one of the main transit routes for drugs from Afghanistan reaching western markets.

Meanwhile, in Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov visited the construction site of another of his prestige projects, the largest mosque in Central Asia, carried out by the French company “Bouygues” in Gypjak. It was reported that the completed building would feature a VIP saloon, presidium hall, and special premises for offering sadaka (religious charity meal offerings) for 5,000 people and a kitchen which would serve them. About 20,000 people can pray at the mosque simultaneously and the mosque will have an underground parking lot. The overall cost of the project is estimated to be more than $100 million. The average monthly salary in the energy-rich former-Soviet republic is not more than $30.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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