TASHKENT, Nov 7 (Reuters) Uzbek leader Islam Karimov plans to seek re-election in a December presidential vote, he was quoted as saying on Wednesday, in his first public remarks on a ballot he is almost certain to win.
Criticised in the West for a poor human rights record during his 18 years in power, Karimov was put forward by the Liberal Democratic Party ahead of the December. 23 vote. Uzbekistan has never held an election judged free and fair by Western monitors.
''I would like to thank ... the Liberal Democratic Party, its activists and its members, and all of our citizens, for all your trust in me -- all of you who showed support for my candidacy ahead of the election,'' he was quoted as saying by the 21 Century newspaper at a party congress.
''I am honoured and at the same time I feel great responsibility for all the trust that has been put in me.'' Karimov did not touch on the issue of the constitution, which limits leaders to two seven-year presidential terms.
He won a referendum in 2002 extending his term length to seven years from five, which technically makes it his first seven-year term. Officials have not clarified that point.
No opposition party operates legally in the mostly Muslim state of 26 million. Several opposition activists who sought to register as candidates were rejected by electoral authorities.
Four other parties, all loyal to Karimov, nominated their parliamentary leaders as candidates but analysts say none are serious challengers. A domestic civil society group has also put forward a candidate.
RIGHTS VIOLATIONS Rights campaigners and the United States regularly list Uzbekistan as a country of concern for human rights violations and religious freedom restrictions.
Karimov has denied reports of widespread rights violations in the former Soviet state. He says his government has to take tough measures against Islamist militants who he says seek to topple his secular government.
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations to press Uzbekistan over what it described as ''torture and ill-treatment'' in the Uzbek criminal justice system at a special UN anti-torture meeting on November.9.
''Uzbekistan wants to make its multilateral partners believe that it has put an end to torture,'' said Holly Cartner, Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia director. ''But official statements simply don't square with reality.'' Karimov's relations with the West deteriorated sharply after troops opened fire on a crowd in the town of Andizhan in May 2005. Witnesses said hundreds of people were killed but the government put the toll at 187 and said they were all either foreign-backed ''terrorists'' or security forces.
In his speech, Karimov stressed his commitment to market reform, saying his nation is gradually becoming richer -- and healthier -- thanks to his policies.
''Since independence, average life expectancy has risen by six years to reach 72.5 years, children's height ... has increased by five centimetres and weight by 4-8 kilograms,'' he said. ''Of course, this did not just happen. A careful strategy has been behind it all.'' REUTERS NC RK2031