Clinton pushes rights in ex-Soviet Central Asia
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on Saturday expected to press Uzbek President Islam Karimov on human rights and regional cooperation as she arrived in the strategically-located ex-Soviet state.
She arrived from neighboring Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe where she sought to defend her plans to meet the controversial Uzbek leader, saying US contacts with the authoritarian regime can help improve the ex-Soviet country's rights record.
At the helm of the landlocked nation of 28.5 million since 1989, Karimov wields unchecked power and tolerates no dissent.
His 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.
US ties with Uzbekistan have for years been a delicate balancing act as Washington seeks to encourage its 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.
"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 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 Dushanbe.
She was speaking in response to a woman who asked why she was meeting an authoritarian leader like Karimov.
Ahead of Clinton's meeting with the Uzbek leader Human Rights Watch called on the top US diplomat 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 longstanding restrictions on financial assistance, including military assistance, to Uzbekistan," the advocacy group said, noting 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.
Meeting Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon earlier Saturday, Clinton warned his government that curbs on religious freedoms can spawn extremism and urged a "rethinking" of the restrictions.
"I disagreed with restrictions on religious freedom and shared those concerns," she said.
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.
Moscow, which regards both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan among its close allies, is expected to keep a watchful eye over Clinton's trip.
Tashkent hosted a US airbase near the Afghan border after the September 11 terror attacks in the United States, but closed it down in 2005 after the US government criticised Karimov's 2005 crackdown.
Clinton's stops in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan 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.
She 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 was her first visit to Tajikistan and her second trip to Tashkent since one in December 2010.
© 2011 AFP