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Uzbekistan angry as U.N. wants progress on human rights
TASHKENT (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Uzbekistan on Monday to improve its human rights record, prompting an angry response from President Islam Karimov, U.N. officials said.
A Muslim nation at the heart of the ancient Silk Road trading route, Uzbekistan has long been accused by the West of human rights abuses including the use of torture in jail.
Karimov, who has tolerated no dissent during two decades in power, denies the accusations and says he needs to be tough in the face of a growing Islamist threat to his secular rule.
During a meeting described by one U.N. official as a "pretty rough ride", Ban told Karimov in Tashkent it was time for Uzbekistan to show it was serious about improving its record.
Another official travelling with Ban quoted Karimov as telling the U.N. chief: "Why pick on us on these issues? They are a problem for everyone".
Officials said Ban raised issues such as torture as well as the use of child labour during the talks they classified as one of the toughest the U.N. chief had held on the subject. There was no official comment from the Uzbek side.
Uzbekistan has intensified a campaign against dissent over the years, driving Western media outlets out of the country and putting pressure on local reporters. Reuters has been covering Uzbekistan from neighbouring Kazakhstan since 2008.
The region's most populous nation, Uzbekistan has never held an election judged fair by international observers and criticism of state policies can land people in jail.
There are no registered opposition parties in the country, which still has a Soviet-style command economy.
Earlier, in a speech at a university in Tashkent, Ban said it was time Uzbekistan showed real progress on human rights.
"You have an important place in the universal agreements that bind us as a community of nations," Ban said. "It is time to deliver. To put them fully into practice."
U.N. INFLUENCE LIMITED
Ban's visit to the five "stans" of Central Asia has brought attention to its long history of rights violations, first under communist rule and later under its post-Soviet hardline leaders.
Some rights groups have accused the West of putting oil and security above democracy in its contacts with the region home to some of the world's biggest energy reserves and lying on a new supply route for NATO-led troops fighting in nearby Afghanistan.
Surat Ikramov, one in a handful of independent human rights defenders operating in Uzbekistan, said he expected Karimov to take little notice of Ban's appeal.
"The Uzbek leadership will largely ignore all this," he told Reuters. "Things will remain the same. The U.N. is a big talking shop and it has no authority over countries like Uzbekistan."
Earlier during his Central Asia tour, Ban said he had won human rights concessions from Turkmenistan after visiting that country last week. In Kyrgyzstan, protesters shouted "help us!" as his motorcade drove through the capital.
Speaking at Tashkent university, Ban urged students to take the future into their own hands in a country where two-thirds of the population of 28 million are under 30 years old.
"You are the future of your great nation. Therefore you are responsible for it," Ban, flanked by Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev, told about 200 students. "This is your new world. It needs you. The world needs a modern Uzbekistan."
(Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Jon Boyle)
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