Last Updated: Friday, 21 October 2016, 15:45 GMT

Uzbekistan: Opposition figure's release signal of warming Uzbek-US ties?

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 20 November 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Uzbekistan: Opposition figure's release signal of warming Uzbek-US ties?, 20 November 2009, available at: [accessed 22 October 2016]
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Uzbekistan's recent release of a leading jailed opposition figure is stoking hopes for warmer relations between Tashkent and the West. But critics of President Islam Karimov's administration caution that the move does not signal Tashkent's intent to change its authoritarian ways.

Sanjar Umarov, a businessman whose brief foray into politics landed him in prison in 2005, was freed under a government amnesty on November 7. "Umarov's release was a 'thank you' to the West for the lifting of sanctions," Nadezhda Atayeva, president of the Paris-based group Human Rights in Central Asia told EurasiaNet. President Karimov is simply "playing a game with the West," by releasing one or two political prisoners a year in an effort to improve the country's image abroad, she said. The EU decided in late October to lift the last remaining sanctions on Tashkent.

A successful businessman who trained as a physicist, Umarov plunged into the tumultuous world of opposition politics in 2005, attacking rampant corruption and calling for free-market reforms of the heavily statist economy.

Umarov also emerged as a vocal critic of the Karimov administration's hardline response to protests in Andijan in May of 2005, when security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds. As the founder of the Sunshine Coalition, an opposition party, he joined calls by the United States and other Western governments for an independent investigation into the events.

When Umarov was seized in October of 2005, he was arrested on financial, not political, charges. After a cursory trial, Umarov was sentenced to over 10 years for "economic" crimes, including embezzlement, money laundering, and tax evasion. He also was ordered to pay over $8 million in fines. A permanent resident of the United States, the 53-year-old Umarov was reportedly tortured and denied medical treatment while in prison, and did not have regular access to legal representation. A visit by family members in 2008 revealed a bruised and emaciated prisoner who appeared drugged and disoriented and did not respond to questions.

He was released on a general amnesty for prisoners suffering from ill health, said Atayeva. Family members confirmed the release, saying in a statement: "We are overjoyed that our beloved husband and father, Sanjar Umarov, has been granted amnesty and is returning home after a long imprisonment. We are grateful to the Senate of the Oliy Majlis of the Republic of Uzbekistan for its thoughtful decision to grant this release so that Sanjar can restore his health in familiar surroundings with his family at his side."

Many observers saw Umarov's imprisonment as punishment for his political ambitions, while others suspected his economic success had made him a target of official ire. Often referred to as an "oligarch," Umarov had extensive interests in the cotton and telecommunications industries before he ran afoul of the Karimov administration.

Relations between Uzbekistan, the United States and the EU have been gradually thawing over the past year, driven mainly by strategic imperatives connected with the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, Tashkent began allowing the US military and NATO to transit non-lethal goods to neighboring Afghanistan; the Defense Department was desperate to develop new supply route for Afghanistan, as corridors from Pakistan were growing vulnerable, and Kyrgyzstan threatened to close the US base at Manas outside Bishkek.

Human rights activists widely saw the EU's decision to drop its last remaining sanctions in October as a quid-pro-quo response for Tashkent's help in establishing the Northern Distribution Network. They pointed out that Uzbekistan failed to fulfill conditions that the EU had set in 2005 for the lifting on sanctions.

By releasing Umarov, Karimov is clearly aiming to keep building goodwill with Washington and Brussels. But it would be a mistake to view the development as the start of a trend, said Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, director of the Tashkent-based Rapid Response Group. "Sanjar Umarov's case is not a precedent, and cannot be viewed as the start [of a process to] release pother political prisoners," Ismoilov noted.

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