Clinton pushes rights in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday warned Tajikistan that curbs on religious freedoms can spawn extremism and said she hoped US contacts with next-door Uzbekistan would improve the ex-Soviet nation's rights record.
Clinton was making her first visit to Tajikistan, to be followed later by talks with Uzbek President Islam Karimov who has wielded unchecked power in the landlocked Central Asian nation of 28.5 million people
Speaking after a meeting with Tajik leader Emomali Rakhmon, the top US diplomat said she warned the Tajik authorities over limits on religious freedom, urging a "rethinking" of the restrictions.
"I disagreed with restrictions on religious freedom and shared those concerns," she said. Speaking at a joint press conference with Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi following the talks, she said the curbs could push "religious expression underground" and breed extremism.
Tajikistan, which shares a porous 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border with Afghanistan, is struggling to contain Islamic fundamentalism, and the government has recently introduced a number of controversial measures including banning children and teenagers from worshipping in mosques.
Clinton was also expected to press Uzbekistan's Karimov on human rights as Washington is forced to perform a delicate balancing act in its ties with the authoritarian regime.
Washington has been seeking to encourage Karimov's government to improve its rights record while trying to secure Tashkent's support in its war on terror, given its strategic border with war-ravaged Afghanistan and its existing railway infrastructure.
Karimov's bloody crackdown on a rare burst of unrest in the city of Andijan in 2005 left 187 people dead, according to official figures, or many hundreds, according to rights groups.
"If you have no contact you will have no influence, and other countries will fill that vacuum who do not care about human rights," Clinton said in Tajikistan, referring to her plans to meet with the Uzbek leader.
"It's a balancing act, but we try on an ongoing basis to get our message across and give heart to people inside countries that there are those outside who care about what is happening to them and are advocating for change on their behalf."
"I cannot promise you that there will be some immediate change. ... You know that change in many of these situations takes time and effort," she said at a town hall-style meeting with Tajik youth and civil society in the capital Dushanbe.
She was speaking in response to a woman who asked why she was meeting with an authoritarian leader like Karimov.
Ahead of Clinton's visit, Human Rights Watch called on her to press Uzbekistan to release political prisoners, end torture in jails and promote civil society.
"The visit to Tashkent is the first since the administrations controversial move in September to lift long-standing restrictions on financial assistance, including military assistance, to Uzbekistan," the advocacy group said, noting that the restrictions were put in place in 2004.
A senior State Department official, speaking to travelling reporters on condition of anonymity, said the Uzbek government was making progress on human rights.
"I'd say we do have, we do see more willingness on the part of the Uzbeks to work with us on a lot of these big concerns that we have, like trafficking in persons, like religious freedom," the official said.
Moscow, which regards both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan among its close allies, is expected to keep a watchful eye over Clinton's trip.
Her stop in Tajikistan and visit to Uzbekistan later Saturday extend a tour that previously took her to Kabul and Islamabad as Washington grapples for an exit to the US-led 10-year military conflict in Afghanistan.
Clinton is on a mission to promote her new Silk Road project linking the economies of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with those of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian countries, part of a long-term plan to boost regional peace and stability.
It is her first visit to Tajikistan and her second to Tashkent since December 2010.
© 2011 AFP