The Enemy We Need: Washington Courts a Repressive Uzbekistan—Again

T ashkent Regional Courthouse is a gray box of a building set off from the sidewalk by a tall metal fence. It overlooks a busy thoroughfare populated by tiny locally made cars that look more like oversized raincoats than actual vehicles. On a steamy morning this past July, a group of women in brightly colored traditional clothes waited in front of the court. They fanned themselves with sheaves of papers, whispered to one another, and watched the padlocked gate guarded by a skinny cop in a teal uniform and the kind of cylindrical, short-billed hat once favored by Charles de Gaulle. Whenever the cop turned the key in the lock, the women mobbed the gate, begging to be allowed inside. Somewhere in the bowels of the courthouse were their sons, husbands, and brothers, all defendants in yet another in a long string of dubious trials that have come to define Uzbekistan—Central Asia’s strategic linchpin and an important American ally in the Afghanistan war.

In this case, the defendants were accused of following the teachings of Said Nursi, a Turkish Islamic scholar (dead for half a century) who tackled, among other things, Islam’s eternal preoccupation of how to reconcile itself with modernity and secular governance. In a lot of places, reading his stuff isn’t a problem (a prominent Nursi disciple has lived openly in Pennsylvania for years), but in Uzbekistan such literature runs afoul of an elaborate system of detention and repression in which security forces maintain an iron grip on the frightened population, critical voices are eliminated, and criminal charges are routinely invented—even as the country cultivates closer ties with the West. While the Uzbek regime is wrathfully vigilant when it comes to observant Muslims, it punishes enemies from all walks of public life: culture, business, journalism, politics. The police are so plentiful on the streets that a stand-up comedian recently called their uniform Uzbekistan’s new national dress.

Back in the courthouse, things didn’t look good for the Nursi defendants awaiting trial. By one estimate, Uzbek courts handed down more than two hundred Nursi-related convictions in the past two years alone. And that figure doesn’t include many other alleged conspiracies unraveled by Uzbek security forces. Sentences of up to ten years are common. When convicts enter the prison system, bad things tend to happen to them.

“They are being forced to rape one another,” Dilorom Mirzayeva, who sells onions at a bazaar outside Tashkent, told me a few days before this latest Nursi trial. Her brother, a taxi driver, was arrested in 2000, for allegedly belonging to another banned Islamic group. A key piece of evidence against him, she says, were two leaflets planted by police on a bookshelf. He got twelve years. Dilorom, who visits him in jail every three months, told me that guards often handcuff her brother, string him up on a wall, and beat him until he passes out. In one recent session, his skull was cracked, and for weeks the wound festered with blood and pus.

You don’t have to look very hard to find similar stories, usually recounted by women who have vainly written stacks of appeals and complaints over the years. Male relatives of detainees are more reluctant to talk, perhaps out of fear that a similar fate will befall them. In a small Tashkent apartment covered with ornate rugs, Klara Alimova, the mother of another longtime inmate, told me prison enforcers sodomized her son with a baton and electrocuted him. Alimova feared that when his fifteen-year sentence runs out in 2014, authorities would tack on another few years—a common tactic to keep some inmates incarcerated indefinitely, according to local human rights defenders. They call it a “spin-out.”

The iron gate in front of the Tashkent Regional Courthouse creaked open, and the relatives of the Nursi defendants scrambled to get in. Even though it was an open trial, not everyone was allowed to attend. An Uzbek colleague and I, the only two journalists, were banned. The younger brother of a defendant named Jasur Hassanov was turned away from the gate without explanation. Angry, he fished out a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, lit one up, and said he didn’t understand what his brother’s crime was. A veteran defense lawyer familiar with the case later told me it was hopeless: “The trial is just a formality. It will follow the prosecutor’s script.” The case hinged on the fact that all defendants were observant Muslims and had once attended Turkish-funded schools in Uzbekistan, and some knew each other and bought furniture together. From this, a massive Nursi conspiracy was extrapolated. Within days, Hassanov, thirty-one, would be sentenced to five years in prison.

“The jails are overcrowded, they are bursting at the seams,” the lawyer, who pleaded to remain anonymous, continued. “It’s painful to watch when innocent people go to jail, but there’s nothing I can do to change this.”

U zbekistan has one of the most repressive political systems in the world, but these days the country’s strongman, Islam Karimov, is back in Washington’s good graces. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Karimov became a friend of convenience to America: his country, located on Afghanistan’s northern border, was an ideal platform for launching the invasion to oust the Taliban. The Pentagon set up a military base inside Uzbekistan. Yet by 2005, Afghanistan no longer seemed a priority, and it became harder for the West to put up with the odious regime in Tashkent. A brutal crackdown on protesters ruined Uzbekistan’s already tense relationship with Washington. But now, with Afghanistan once again dominating America’s foreign policy, Karimov has engineered another makeover—all the while tightening repression at home.

Uzbekistan’s embassy in Washington occupies a white brick mansion just off Dupont Circle. At a business forum held there in July, Robert Blake, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, gave a glimpse of Washington’s renewed friendship with Uzbekistan. In his prepared address, Blake noted that Uzbekistan “weathered the global economic downturn well and continues to have solid economic growth,” an interesting observation to make about a Soviet-style economy where business often succeeds or fails based on its proximity to power—and where farming resembles indentured servitude. Blake also praised Karimov’s regime for its “vital role in international efforts to confront violent extremists in Afghanistan” and for allowing the US to ship supplies for its troops there through Uzbek territory, augmenting the problematic Pakistani route. In effect, Washington rehabilitated Karimov because it once again needed his country as a warehouse. The thaw came at just the right time: when Pakistan blocked NATO supply lines in early October to protest an airstrike, the West was able to reroute some supplies through Uzbekistan.

A crisis on another border, in Kyrgyzstan, also helped Karimov improve his global image. After the overthrow of a corrupt regime there early last year, Kyrgyzstan underwent a nasty bout of ethnic cleansing aimed at the country’s sizable Uzbek minority. Ethnic Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan sought refuge in Uzbekistan, just across the jagged border. Five years ago, Karimov had sent his own citizens running for cover in the opposite direction after a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters. But now the Uzbek strongman was able to reinvent himself as a humanitarian accommodating the Kyrgyzstan refugees. Even though he ordered them back across the border before many observers felt it was safe for them to return, Karimov nonetheless received plaudits for his role in managing the crisis.

K arimov follows in the well-established tradition of the despots who have ruled these arid lands long coveted by empires. In the nineteenth century, for instance, Russia’s territorial crawl eastward was threatening to bump into Britain’s colonies in India, with Central Asia literally caught in the middle. Emissaries from both empires used diplomacy, threats, and bribes to compete for the attention of Central Asia’s kingpins. In one particularly bloody episode in 1842, the emir of Bukhara, part of modern Uzbekistan, threw two British envoys into a rat-infested dungeon and then had them publicly beheaded on the main square. Within decades, the Russians conquered Bukhara along with most of the rest of Central Asia, a dominion that would last until the breakup of the Soviet Union.

A veteran Soviet functionary, Karimov grew up in an orphanage in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road town once ruled by the emirs of Bukhara. When Karimov grabbed the reins of independent Uzbekistan, he created a political system that would tolerate no dissent. Among his early targets was Mohammed Solih, a poet and popular opposition party leader. Karimov first offered to make Solih vice president, and then, when the poet refused, had him detained. Solih managed to slip out of the country and has lived in itinerant exile for the past seventeen years. He now occupies a small house in the suburban reaches of Istanbul, growing watermelons in his backyard in hopes of replicating the taste of those in Uzbekistan, for which he is desperately homesick. Chances are Solih isn’t going home anytime soon. In 2000, an Uzbek court sentenced him in absentia to fifteen years in prison on charges of terrorism in a trial “reminiscent in all respects of Soviet-era show trials,” according to Human Rights Watch. An international arrest warrant caught up with Solih on a trip to the Czech Republic, where the fugitive poet was jailed in 2001 while the Czechs studied the Uzbek extradition request. A Czech court soon saw through the charges and set Solih free. Vaclav Havel, who had once been held in the same prison, met with Solih, two dissident writers trading memories. In a way, Solih foreshadowed his own fate—and that of future Uzbek dissidents—in a 1981 poem called “Tomorrow”:

Tomorrow, we’ll definitely be happy
If today we remain alive.
Tomorrow, we’ll chase down any dream
If today we succeed in escaping.

U nder Soviet rule, Uzbekistan was a fairly secular place, but independence helped provoke an Islamic awakening in the predominantly Muslim nation of twenty-seven million people. In the late 1990s, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group battle-hardened in the civil war in Tajikistan, set its sights on toppling the government in Tashkent and allied itself with the Taliban regime in Kabul. By then, the Taliban had extended its reach into Northern Afghanistan, all the way up to the river-border with Uzbekistan—and it seemed that water wasn’t going to stop the holy war. “We were getting reports that Taliban fighters were mooning our border-guards,” recalls Farkhad Tolipov, a political scientist who worked in Karimov’s administration at the time. One morning in early 1999, six car bombs rocked downtown Tashkent just as Karimov was heading to work.

Furious, Karimov blamed the blasts on Islamists, although there are whispered rumors in Tashkent that the explosions were staged by Uzbek security services as a pretext for the purges that followed. Whatever the case, Islam Karimov wasted no time in declaring a holy war of his own. Never has a man worn his first name with such irony. Massive roundups of Muslims that began then continue to this day. A Western official in Tashkent told me, “The Uzbek approach is there can be no perception of weakness here: you grow your beard a little bit, pray a little too fervently, you are going to be in trouble. They whack these people, put them in prisons, and of course these are incubators for radicalism. This is a serious problem that they have. In this part of the world what’s perceived as a recipe for survival is you have to look tough.”

Karimov was chasing Islamist conspiracies, some real but most of them imagined, when 9/11 happened, and his own private war became conglomerated with the Global War on Terror. Karimov allowed the Americans to occupy an old Soviet air base near the Afghan border. The Germans were given use of another base. Not only did the war in Afghanistan help legitimize Karimov’s own domestic crackdowns, but it also gave the savvy politician a strategic counterweight against the rising Russian influence in the region. In a way, Karimov was playing the same empire-juggling game his predecessor, the emir of Bukhara, had played a century and a half earlier.

An interesting subchapter here is the crusading approach taken by Craig Murray, Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2005. While the West cultivated the Uzbek regime, Murray talked openly about torture and abuse. In one instance, he obtained photographs of an inmate’s disfigured corpse delivered to his family for burial. He forwarded the photos to a Scottish pathology lab, which reported back that the body had been submerged in scalding water. This nugget became forever etched into the human rights lore of Uzbekistan. When critics talk about “a regime that boils its opponents alive,” as they frequently do today, they are referring to these photos. But Murray himself self-destructed. A married father of two, he fell for a dancer in Tashkent as policy disagreements with his London bosses grew. The maverick ambassador fell into depression and ended up on suicide watch. He was eventually fired. All of this is chronicled in his earnest (if somewhat self-aggrandizing) memoir, Dirty Diplomacy: The Rough-and-Tumble Adventures of a Scotch-Drinking, Skirt-Chasing, Dictator-Busting and Thoroughly Unrepentant Ambassador Stuck on the Frontline of the War Against Terror .

W ith the West firmly behind him, Karimov could pursue his domestic agenda unfettered. A turning point came on May 13, 2005, in the town of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley. In a typically fabricated case, the regime had jailed a group of respected local businessmen and accused them of an extremist Islamic conspiracy. When they were busted out of jail, Andijan residents flocked to an impromptu rally on the central square where they aired grievances against the government. There were women and kids there, drawn to the square by sheer curiosity. “All the kids wanted to see what was happening, you know how kids are,” a relative of seventeen-year-old Sardarbek Hasanov told me when I arrived in Andijan two days after the rally. Hasanov got shot in the head, one of a thousand unarmed victims mowed down by machine-gun fire from the Uzbek security forces. The scale of the massacre was such that Washington and the European Union could no longer ignore Karimov’s abuses. They demanded an independent investigation. Karimov told them to get lost. The Uzbeks evicted the Americans from the air base. The Europeans slapped Uzbekistan with an arms embargo and a visa ban against key officials.

Back in the international doghouse, Karimov resolved to profit from his pariah status. He needed to recalibrate his big-power relationships anyway. The Uzbeks had grown worried about the wave of color revolutions that unseated longtime rulers in Georgia, Ukraine, and even right next door in Kyrgyzstan. Those rulers succumbed to homegrown opposition movements, but Washington’s democracy promotion (the rhetoric and funds alike) clearly helped. Karimov needed friends he could do business with without fear of subversion. He found them in Moscow and Beijing, where foreign policy doesn’t include democracy promotion. The Uzbek regime used the new freeze with the West to mop up the meager remnants of civil society and opposition that managed to survive a decade of purges. It was around this time that Sanjar Umarov, a prominent Uzbek businessman who once supplied oil products to the American base, had the misfortune of launching the Sunshine Coalition. Here was a man, not an Islamist or a poet, but a wealthy guy with connections up and down Uzbekistan who thought he could challenge the regime. Karimov dealt with him the same way Vladimir Putin dealt with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the politically ambitious oligarch jailed since 2003. Uzbek prosecutors unearthed a litany of alleged violations in Umarov’s businesses, including money laundering, and packed him off to prison for fourteen years. “The field has been cleared of dissidents, no one even opens his mouth anymore,” says Galima Bukharbayeva, a prominent Uzbek journalist who runs uznews.net from Berlin (access is blocked in Uzbekistan).

T here are survivors on the dissidents’ field, however. Surat Ikramov, for instance, is an energetic man with salt-and-pepper hair whose voice has been polished to a velvety baritone by decades of chain-smoking. One afternoon in late July, I met him in the courtyard of a Tashkent hospital where he’d gone for some injections and a regular checkup. Little pink scars were visible on his neck, marking the spots where doctors grafted new veins after he suffered a stroke. At sixty-five, he’s also had two coronaries, and there are stents propping up veins in his heart. Ikramov sat on a blue bench, his shirt unbuttoned down to his chest, and puffed on a cigarette in defiance of doctors’ orders. For nearly a decade, Ikramov has chronicled the regime’s abuses, large and small. He’s done so with stubborn consistency even as many other critics vanished into exile or jail, or simply chose to shut up.

Ikramov is a human rights defender, a strange calling that combines legal advocacy, muckraking journalism, psychological counseling, and—perhaps most importantly—a strong sense of moral outrage. He works from a cramped apartment in a Tashkent low-rise. There are thick binders of case files lined up on shelves and an old clunky desktop computer in the corner. That’s where he composes his dispatches and e-mails them out to a list of recipients that includes diplomats, journalists, human rights groups, and even officials in the Uzbek government. Ikramov, who attends trials, reads indictments, and talks to victims, doesn’t pull punches. In a May dispatch marking the fifth anniversary of the Andijan massacre, he called it “one of the most horrible crimes of the Karimov regime” that remains “uninvestigated and unpunished.” Ikramov went on to write that since then, “the human rights situation has deteriorated; there are more illegal arrests, indictments and trials on fabricated charges in religious and political cases. The charges are not proven, and almost every suspect talks in court about being subjected to torture and beatings to force a confession.”

This is pretty strong stuff in a country where a typical newspaper front page features a story about a factory that “can produce five million pairs of technical gloves a month” ( Pravda of the East , July 24, 2010).

I kramov, a Soviet-trained engineer, stumbled into the human rights field by accident. In the 1990s he launched a small business printing textbooks and visual aids for schools. When a state-owned factory ruined his custom-made mold, he sued, lost, and got angry. The printing business fell apart. He sought help from human rights defenders and eventually founded his own outfit. Though it bears the grand title Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, of which Ikramov is chairman, it is essentially a one-man shop. One morning in 2003, while moonlighting as a cab driver, Ikramov was snatched from his car by a group of men, driven out into the sticks, beaten, packed into a burlap sack, and dumped in a ditch, presumably to suffocate. Ikramov survived, declined foreign-asylum offers, and dug in for the long haul. I recently read through an archive of his dispatches and was struck by the range and depth of the abuses he has chronicled. Alongside the grimly repetitive allegations of torture, complete with dates, names, places, and methods, Ikramov has exposed government mistreatment of ordinary people: farmers, businessmen, people utterly removed from politics or religion. It’s the kind of work that’s usually done by newspapers, but few people do that in Uzbekistan anymore.

Last summer I went to meet the subjects of a story from March that began with a typically direct Ikramovian headline: “Arbitrary actions, raiding and theft of property by government officials.” The case concerned a family of Samarkand entrepreneurs who built an outdoor market in a partnership with a local governor. The governor solicited and received a bribe to expedite the necessary approvals, the family says. Once the market started operating, the local governor’s office reversed itself and ordered it closed, a decision that coincided with the Uzbek prime minister’s visit to the area, Ikramov wrote. Criminal charges against the family of entrepreneurs followed. They included theft, fraud, and—in the case of Adbdumalik Sapayev, a key investor—even storage of illegal drugs, a charge based on a pinch of opium planted by police, the family says. Sapayev was sentenced to six years in prison. Some bazaar buildings were destroyed, and “ten trucks took the construction materials to another market that the governor was going to build,” Ikramov wrote in his dispatch.

At an outdoor cafe in Samarkand, I talked to Abdumalik Sapayev’s son, Farkhad, a stern young man of few words. He gave me a crumpled photocopy of a suicide note written by his uncle, who also invested in the doomed bazaar and faced charges. In the note, the uncle blamed the local governor for what he was about to do and asked his oldest son to take care of the younger siblings; then, three days after his fiftieth birthday, he hanged himself in his bedroom. The local governor’s office said that “all these accusations are groundless” and that the Sapayev family’s “guilt was fully proven in court.” At the same cafe, over a massive plate of kebabs, I met the Sapayevs’ lawyer, an intense former policeman who said he quit the force more than a decade ago because he was tired of fabricating cases. He scrutinized every page of my passport and asked me if I was a member of an intelligence service. Then, in hushed tones, pausing every time the waiter swung by with more meat, the lawyer told me he’d handled more than a hundred cases since coming over from the dark side. “There are no acquittals—if they start a criminal case, there will be a conviction,” he said. After the bazaar case was lost in court, Farkhad found Surat Ikramov’s name on the Internet.

Ikramov says he picks his cases carefully and gets involved only after he’s convinced that the petitioners really have been wronged. Sometimes, he says, his dispatches trigger official inquiries. The mother of one detainee told me her son received better treatment in prison after Ikramov wrote about his case. But mostly, the dispatches seem to channel the collective frustration of a people unable to trust its courts, its government, or its police. Ikramov doesn’t charge for his services, having subsisted for years on small grants from the US Embassy. A pro-government website accused him of painting a deliberately dark picture of Uzbekistan to keep his “sponsors” happy. Ikramov is currently facing a defamation suit in the case of the strange death of a famous Uzbek singer. According to the official version, she hanged herself. But Ikramov suggested she may have been murdered and implicated the family of the singer’s boyfriend—who just happens to be a brother of the powerful interior minister. A court recently ruled against Ikramov, and he told me in an e-mail he was going to appeal.

A fter Afghanistan moved back to the front burner of American foreign policy, the US and the EU decided to re-engage the Uzbek regime. The Europeans dropped their sanctions last year, and Washington sent high-level envoys to Tashkent, including General David Petraeus and Afghanistan-Pakistan honcho Richard Holbrooke. By all accounts, Karimov hadn’t changed a single thing since Andijan, but here he was being courted and called an important ally all over again. There’s cautious hope that re-engagement might prod Karimov to open his jails at least a little, in the same way the Soviet Union and China have used jailed dissidents as bargaining chips with the West. This is what seems to have happened in the case of Sanjar Umarov, the jailed founder of the Sunshine Coalition. Karimov freed him last year after US officials asked the Uzbeks to consider a humanitarian release. Sick and psychologically shaken, Umarov rejoined his family in Tennessee. When I asked Ikramov what he thought of the rapprochement, he said, after a moment’s pause, “Karimov won.” Later in our conversation, he gave a more nuanced answer. “There are so many good people in prison: the best businessmen, writers, journalists, human rights defenders, religious thinkers. We have to find ways to free them,” he said. “Even if one person comes out of jail, that’s already something.”

In early October, I received an e-mail from the father of Erkin Musaev, a former Uzbek military officer who had once served as the defense ministry’s point man for dealing with the American military contingent in Uzbekistan. In 2006, a few months after the Americans got the boot, Musaev was detained in Tashkent airport as he was about to board a regional flight. Musaev, who by then worked on a UN counter-narcotics project, was told that sniffer dogs had smelled drugs in his luggage. Customs officials found a computer disk in the outer pocket of his checked suitcase—a disk Musaev said he’d never seen—and booked him for being an American spy. The case ballooned to include outlandish insinuations, Musaev wrote in a detailed account of his detention that he passed on to his family. Investigators threatened to cast him as an American-paid organizer of the Andijan uprising.

In the same account, Musaev described several types of torture used against him. In a technique called Northern Lights, Musaev was sat on a stool and repeatedly hit on the head. “At first, you feel a terrible headache, then you see everything in red as if blood is pouring down your eyes, then you see black and white stripes. After a while it seems that your entire body has moved into your head, and your head hurts like hell. With that, you feel that your soul wants to break free of your body, and you want to help it (by tearing the body apart), but you don’t feel your body.” His torturers, Musaev wrote, came from the ranks of seasoned criminals, a detail verified by other detainees subjected to torture in Uzbekistan’s jails. (This approach to outsourcing torture was perfected in the Soviet Union’s prison camps, where guards often sicced common criminals on dissidents in exchange for prison perks.) Musaev signed a forced confession and was sentenced to fifteen years for treason. The UN human rights office considers his detention “arbitrary.” Ikramov, the Uzbek activist, says Musaev was part of Karimov’s post-2005 purge of America’s friends.

This summer I went to meet Musaev’s father, Haidjan, in his tidy apartment in Tashkent. Haidjan is a slight man of eighty. He wore a light-blue shirt and an Uzbek square black hat with a white embroidered edge. A university professor, Haidjan served apples, cookies, and tea as he pulled paper after paper from his son’s long case file. Just that morning, Haidjan had gone to the headquarters of the State Security Service, a regular pilgrimage, to deliver yet another letter, this one comparing Uzbekistan of today to the USSR of 1937, the darkest year of purges. Yet compared to relatives of detainees whose cases are known only to their loved ones, Haidjan considers himself somewhat lucky. His son’s case had developed some international profile that he hoped might nudge it toward clemency in this new thaw in US-Uzbek relations. This past fall, President Karimov traveled to London, then to New York to attend the UN General Assembly—his big “I’m back” tour of the West. A few days later, Haidjan wrote me a brief e-mail that was both hopeful and inconclusive: “It seems there’s at least some movement in my son’s situation, particularly after the president’s trip to the US and England (we think precisely because of this trip), and we would like to know where else we can expect support from.”

O n a rainy October afternoon in Washington, a bunch of people in suits crowded into a think tank conference room to hear out two high-ranking Uzbek officials. The officials were in town to promote Uzbekistan as a beacon of Central Asian stability and to offer advice on securing Afghanistan, the Uzbek regime’s big new foreign policy push. The gathering at the Atlantic Council was sponsored by FMN Logistics, a well-connected American firm that has profited from Washington’s decision to open the Uzbek route for Afghanistan supplies. FMN, which says it has delivered more shipments to Afghanistan than any other freight forwarder here, has a curious pedigree: it’s run by Harry Eustace Jr., whose eponymous father helped launch a shadowy Uzbek conglomerate long believed to be linked to Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek president’s daughter. Flamboyant and shrewd, Karimova is her dad’s possible successor and an alleged éminence grise in Uzbek business circles—although she herself has denied the godmother-like status often ascribed to her. When I reached the younger Eustace in Washington, he told me FMN is in “no way connected to Gulnara.” Whatever the case, the firm now appears closest to the till when it comes to cashing in on the US-Uzbek rapprochement.

At the FMN-bankrolled confab in Washington, the Uzbek dignitaries took softball questions from the audience and ignored an occasional query on domestic repression. “The process of forming the civil society in Uzbekistan is going on, and it will be stronger and stronger,” said Sodiq Safaev, chairman of Uzbek Senate’s committee on foreign affairs. A few hours later in Tashkent, a court ordered one of the few remaining members of that civil society—a journalist named Abdumalik Boboyev—to pay a $9,000 fine for spreading lies about Uzbekistan. His crime is writing articles that went a little deeper than Pravda ’s chronicles of glove production.

B efore I left Tashkent in July, I went for a walk downtown. There was once a beautiful park there. The trees, some nearly a hundred years old, had leafy canopies virtually impenetrable to the sun. Old men played chess, mothers pushed strollers down shaded lanes, and young couples lounged on benches. Smack in the middle of the city, the park was a hub, a meeting point, a playground. Several generations of Tashkent residents grew up with it. Then something strange happened. Late in 2009, municipal workers with chainsaws and axes turned up in the park. Within days, they chopped down every single tree. The fallen trees were swiftly replaced by a newly seeded lawn with gnarly saplings poking out of the ground. Tashkent residents were infuriated. Why would you cut down a perfect park to make room for a bad park?

The mysterious destruction fits well into the generally absurd picture of Uzbekistan today. The president’s daughter Gulnara (whose many occupations include Uzbek ambassador to Spain, jewelry designer, and pop singer) invites pop idol Sting to perform in Tashkent. Sting sings, and a British paper headlines: “Sting plays concert for daughter of ‘boil your enemies’ dictator.” Sting concedes that Karimov is “hermetically sealed in his own medieval, tyrannical mindset.” Photographer Umida Ahmedova films a documentary called The Burden of Virginity , a look at how brides and their families struggle with issues of virginity, or lack thereof. A court convicts Ahmedova of besmirching the honor of the Uzbek people, sentences her to jail time, and then releases her with an amnesty.

It’s still not clear what happened to the park. Uzbek authorities didn’t bother to explain anything. So rumors proliferated. One was that the regime—paranoid about enemies—was worried the park provided not only shade but also cover to miscreants plotting to attack government officials. Another whispered reason was that the tall, canopied trees obscured the vista toward a newly built government palace, a grandly oppressive structure executed in the new style of Tashkent architecture: a facade of huge white pillars behind which sit floor-to-ceiling banks of reflective windows. Another rumor was that someone wanted to turn all those trees into furniture. Uzbek authorities suggested that the hundred-year-old trees were foreign to the native flora of Uzbekistan and that their sprawling root systems were dangerous.

In July, I stopped by the park. It was a sorry sight. In the middle of it sat a chubby statue of Amir Timur riding a horse. The government has anointed the medieval warrior as a mythical progenitor of the Uzbek people and worships him with countless monuments, street names, and museums. Newly planted saplings wilted in the summer heat. In the late afternoon, the park was empty, except for a group of teenagers sweating on a bench. Five years ago, I played a long, and ultimately unsuccessful, series of chess games against an old man in the shade of a tree. Chess junkies used to congregate in the park the same way they do in Washington’s Dupont Circle. I went up to the spot where I remembered the chess tables used to be. I touched the paved ground under my feet. You really could fry an egg on it.

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