Rights advocates urge EU to hold Uzbek sanctions

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BRUSSELS, Oct 9 (Reuters) A leading rights group and an international thinktank urged the European Union today not to ease sanctions on Uzbekistan, saying there had been no improvement in the human rights situation.

Germany has led a push to drop the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan for crushing a revolt in the town of Andizhan in 2005 against resistance from a handful of states including Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland.

Germany, wanting to deepen ties with Uzbekistan and Central Asia to secure future energy resources, has argued the measures have had little effect on President Islam Karimov's policies.

Alain Deletroz of the International Crisis Group said dropping the sanctions would be a propaganda coup for Karimov ahead of December 23 elections.

He said he was shocked only a few EU states were defending the restrictions. ''This is major catastrophe,'' he told a news briefing. ''It will tell the world and ourselves how far we are still away from having a real, solid foreign policy as a bloc.'' The sanctions, including visa bans on eight Uzbek officials and a ban on sales of military equipment, come up for renewal in the middle of next month and there must be an EU consensus for them to be extended.

The 27 EU states have been debating the future of the sanctions ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers next week.

Human Rights Watch urged the European Union to maintain the sanctions. ''There has been no progress with regards to the human rights situation on the ground,'' its Claire Ivers said.

She said 13 rights activists were in jail, an independent journalist was being held in a closed psychiatric ward, and rights advocates and their families faced daily harassment.

Ivers said Uzbekistan had also taken no steps to implement United Nations recommendations on ending the use of torture.

She said the European Union should reaffirm its call for the release of rights advocates and demand concrete improvements.

Countries in favour of easing the sanctions argue that they have not only been ineffective but could be impeding EU efforts to draw Tashkent into a dialogue on rights.

Those covered by the visa ban are Defence Minister Ruslan Mirzayev and seven others including National Security chief Rustam Inoyatov and several special forces officers linked to the crushing of a revolt in the town of Andizhan.

Witnesses say hundreds of people, including women and children, were killed when troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in May 2005. Uzbekistan says 187 people, all guerrillas or ''terrorists'', were killed in a police action against Islamist extremists.

Diplomats say the sanctions debate has focused on the visa bans and there has been no discussion of the arms embargo.

Reuters PDT DB2124

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