US Omits Uzbekistan From List of Religious Violators

Washington, USA - The United States has left Uzbekistan off a list of states it considers serious violators of religious freedom despite appeals by human rights groups to include the estranged U.S. military ally on the annual list.

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Bush administration officials said the State Department had decided to leave the list of worst offenders unchanged when it publishes its report on Tuesday, which opens the named states up to possible sanctions.

Vietnam, Myanmar, China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Eritrea will again be designated ``countries of particular concern,'' the officials said.

Faced with strong congressional pressure, the State Department kept Vietnam on the list despite reaching a deal with Hanoi this year over how the communist state would improve religious rights.

The State Department ignored a recommendation from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a Congress-funded, bipartisan agency, which asked that Uzbekistan be included because, it said, its record was deteriorating.

Uzbekistan, a former Soviet state, provided important help for the U.S. forces operating in neighboring Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion to oust the Taliban, allowing them to use an air base to fly in men and equipment.

But after Washington criticized President Islam Karimov for using force to quash a revolt in the Andizhan region in May, which erupted in part because of mistreatment of a group of Muslims, Karimov gave U.S. troops six months to dismantle its facilities at the base and to leave.

In a sign of the strained relations, last week the United States issued a sharp rebuke to the Uzbek government over the arrest of opposition leader Sanjar Umarov and demanded to know more about the dissident's case and his medical condition.


Michael Cromartie, the head of the religious freedom commission, said thousands of Muslims had been jailed in Uzbekistan in recent years for their faith.

``We think they should also have made Uzbekistan a 'country of particular concern,'' he said through a spokesman.

Human rights groups said the Bush administration had clear justification for including Uzbekistan on the list after the Andizhan killings, which prompted the European Union -- but not the United States -- to impose sanctions.

The Uzbek government denies it targets Muslims for their faith and accuses them of being extremists who want to set up Islamic rule in the country of 26 million.

One U.S. official said the State Department did not include Uzbekistan because it could have appeared to be retaliation for the base eviction. ``It would look too political,'' said the official, who asked not to be named because the report had not been published.

Another said the U.S. government believed naming Uzbekistan could be counterproductive as the Bush administration is seeking to persuade the government to improve its record.

``To maintain the integrity of the process you have to make an honest judgment, not be worried about other criteria,'' Tom Malinowski of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said. ''Uzbekistan is not a place that respects religious freedom by any stretch of the imagination.

Felix Corley, of Forum 18, a Norwegian-based Christian group which reports on rights in Uzbekistan, said the intolerance of religion has only boosted militants who stand up to the government.

``Deliberately or not the government has driven people to the cause of the extremists,'' he said.