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Rumors Persist That Uzbekistan's Ailing Leader Has Died

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Some parts of the former Soviet Union still function a lot like the former Soviet Union. One of those is Uzbekistan. That Central Asian country's president, Islam Karimov, fell ill over the weekend. A news site which is banned in Uzbekistan reported the leader dead on Monday. But last night, Karimov's daughter on Instagram said her 78-year-old father is in stable condition following a cerebral hemorrhage and thanked well-wishers for their support. Steve Swerdlow is Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and joins us now to talk more about this. Good morning.

STEVE SWERDLOW: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So Karimov is among the last of the Communist Party bosses - you know, big men of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan is one of the world's most repressive and opaque governments. This is a case-in-point, I think. Tell us a little bit more about Karimov and Uzbekistan.

SWERDLOW: Well, you know, whether or not the reports of his death are officially confirmed, Karimov will go down in history as one of the most ruthless autocrats and, in a way, most wily strategists of this post-Soviet period. He's been in power for almost 27 years. As you noted, he was the Communist Party boss before he became the president. And immediately upon taking office in 1991, he started to jail all potential political opponents.

And he's really ruled with an iron fist for the last quarter-century, employing a policy of torture, forcing millions of his own citizens to pick cotton in the fields in very abusive conditions for the profit of the state. And also, he has jailed upwards of perhaps even 10,000 political prisoners, which is more political prisoners than all of the former Soviet states combined.

MONTAGNE: And one reason that Uzbekistan, which was something of a backwater before 9/11, came to the attention of the U.S. is that it shares a border with Afghanistan. And the U.S. established an important airbase there in the early years of the Afghan war. Tell us what happened to that relationship.

SWERDLOW: That relationship has gone through ups and downs. In 2005, Karimov really showed his true nature. He gave an order to government forces to surround a public square where protesters had gathered. He ruthlessly ordered his troops to shoot, and they killed close to a thousand largely peaceful protesters. And after that bloody incident, the United States, the European Union, the OSCE, the United Nations, they condemned those actions. They distanced themselves from Uzbekistan and placed sanctions on the government. There was a cooling of ties for several years. But when the war in Afghanistan really heated up again, Karimov was needed by the West. And so for the past six, seven years, there's been renewed military cooperation and, from our perspective in the human rights world, not enough attention paid to the absolute repression that has reigned supreme in Uzbekistan

MONTAGNE: If Karimov is, in fact, dead or incapacitated, what's likely to happen?

SWERDLOW: Well, absent outside pressure and a strong message from Washington and Brussels and other capitals that there need to be reforms, we're likely to see the atrocious human rights situation inside the country continue. Karimov has cleared the ranks of all opposition. And those that are likely to come into power are regime insiders who most likely are going to continue using these abusive practices, such as torture, to maintain control over the population. And that's something that really just shouldn't continue, given the severity of the abuses inside the country.

MONTAGNE: Steve Swerdlow is Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. Thanks very much.

SWERDLOW: Thanks, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.