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#15 - JRL 7027
Internet Allegations Hit Uzbekistan
January 21, 2003

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (AP) - A series of stories posted on the Internet before access was cut off have alleged high-level corruption and the president's imminent resignation, stirring rare public debate in this tightly controlled Central Asian nation.

The first lurid stories alleging high-level drug-dealing and a government-staged terrorist attack appeared in the first week of January on sites based in neighboring Russia and Kazakhstan.

Although access has been cut off, allegedly by the Uzbekistan government, they have become the hottest read in town - passed around by e-mail, in print or by word of mouth. They could add to the instability of an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Official corruption isn't news to Uzbeks who cope with it daily at police checkpoints and government offices. But the Internet stories level their accusations against officials at the very top, including President Islam Karimov, his top advisers and the interior and security chiefs.

Like much of what appears on the Internet, they cannot be verified. They are signed ``Usman Khaknazarov, political analyst,'' a name unknown here, and are denied by the government which also insists it was not responsible for shutting access to the Web sites.

They include the unsubstantiated allegation that Karimov was a middleman who set up drug rings between Uzbek dealers and northern Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, and that a February 1999 explosion in Tashkent that killed at least 16 people was staged by officials to justify a crackdown on opposition.

They also alleged that Karimov was seriously ill and said this had intensified fighting between powerful rival political clans.

Widely rumored over the past year, there has been no official confirmation of the president's poor health. Questioned by journalists in August, Karimov said he was perfectly well and just like other people sometimes caught a cold.

A presidential spokesman, Sherzod Kudratkhodzhayev, said Friday the stories were ``fabrications and slander'' and that Karimov was healthy.

``These articles are extremely subjective and tendentious and are clearly the result of somebody's political order,'' Kudratkhodzhayev said.

Karimov, who turns 65 on Jan. 30, has ruled the nation since before the 1991 Soviet collapse. His government has long been criticized for its human rights record and lack of economic reforms, but provides an air base for anti-terrorism operations in neighboring Afghanistan and is also hosting German troops.

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia with 25 million people and has been the main target of regional militant Islamic groups. It borders on all other countries in the region and Afghanistan, and its internal stability is crucial for the security of the whole region.

Karimov next faces a vote in 2007, after his term was extended in 2002 in an internationally criticized referendum.

The Internet stories ended with calls for people to demand Karimov and his government resign and not let Karimov choose a successor. The author also urged people ``to spread the truth among your close ones and relatives.''

``Start with words, they are a powerful weapon,'' the author said.

Atonazar Arifov, leader of the banned opposition party Erk, said the stories probably came from an informed source in government circles.

``There is a lot of truth there,'' he claimed.

Arifov said the blocking of access showed they made the government nervous and officials were probably trying to establish who wrote the articles.

The Communication Ministry said there is no order to block the sites.

``Most likely these sites are not working for technical reasons,'' said Deputy Communications Minister Alisher Khodzhayev.

However, Internet providers said nothing is wrong with the sites and they are still accessible outside the country; the latest article in the series, on Karimov's possible successors, was accessible in neighboring countries on Saturday. Web sites of the opposition Birlik party and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned radical Islamic group, have not been accessible in Uzbekistan for years.

Sociologist Bakhodyr Musayev said the articles revealed ``a big fight ahead of an imminent change of leadership.'' Arifov said that with no strong democratic opposition or history of free elections, the nation might be heading for a painful power shift.

``We don't want the president's sudden death, because then there will most likely be blood and some tyrant will come to power,'' he said.

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