SCMP Wednesday, October 3, 2001

Sudden alliances pose high risk

GREG TORODE in Washington

In one aspect Washington's "new war" on terrorism is decidedly old, human rights groups fear, harking back to the darker deeds of the Cold War.
The sudden forging of alliances with authoritarian states risks a return to the days when the US ignored or even supported brutality by right-wing regimes from Indonesia to Chile in the fight against communism.
As Washington seeks approval from Central Asian states to support US intelligence and military operations against Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, it risks being seen to support tough internal crackdowns against political and religious dissent in former Soviet territories run by modern warlords.
"We are going to find ourselves in bed with all sorts of monsters," one human rights lobbyist said. "It is a case of back to the future. And we may regret it when these suppressed people turn against us in years to come."
Of particular concern is Uzbekistan, already a staging point for initial US operations. Here, about 7,000 people - including many Muslims - are being held as political prisoners. Some have been jailed for worship outside of state-sanctioned movements - detentions the US traditionally criticises.
Opposition activists claim President Islam Karimov has repeatedly used an earlier crackdown on terrorism to scotch political reform - a trend they fear will intensify. Mr Karimov's officials are now openly saying further reform is on hold until the hunt for bin Laden is over. And they fully expect less criticism from Washington in exchange for help. However, Washington has denied any such agreement.
Earlier this year, Uzbekistan came in for stinging criticism in the US State Department's annual human rights report for worsening repression in a range of areas. The report described "serious abuses" - some committed by an extensive secret police apparatus little changed from the Soviet-era - in an "authoritarian state with limited civil rights".
But such concerns have been largely ignored as Secretary of State Colin Powell leads the US drive for military access across Central Asia.
At the weekend, Mr Powell praised their efforts. "We have been very pleased how forthcoming they have been, with respect to condemning the acts of September 11, of offering support in various kinds of ways," he said.
The support is understood to extend to intelligence sharing and use of air-space and runways for military and spy operations.
Mr Powell is now being lobbied by leading human rights groups not to suddenly turn a blind eye to abuses in potential allies. A letter to Mr Powell from the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, warned the US risked undermining its message.
"If a US-led counter-terrorism effort becomes associated with attacks on peaceful dissent and religious expression, it will undermine everything the US is trying to achieve," Mr Roth said.
"Many countries are sensing that the US will condone actions committed in the name of anti-terrorism that it would have condemned a short-time ago." The letter warned that a range of countries - including China, Russia, Malaysia and Indonesia - had shown signs of demanding US support for internal crackdowns as part of the wider anti-terrorism drive. China's Foreign Ministry linked support for the global drive against terrorism to US support for Beijing's campaign against independence movements in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Australia has also faced criticism from the group for comments from Defence Minister Peter Reith seeking to use the attacks to stop asylum seekers from entering.