The controversial president of Uzbekistan under whose authority protesters in the country were killed by state forces five years ago has been received in Brussels by the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov was invited to talk about energy and security cooperation, with NATO as well.
The Commission says human rights are also high up the agenda. However, in 2009, the EU lifted sanctions it had imposed against Karimov’s government after its troops shot hundreds of protesters in 2005.
Given the country’s record of violent abuses, the high-level contact with Karimov has infuriated international human rights groups.
Uzbek activist and former prisoner Mutabar Tadjibaeva, in Brussels, said: “It is clear that if they invite a dictator to discuss energy issues then I believe they are more interested in gas than in human rights in Uzbekistan.”
Furthermore, the western coalition fighting in Afghanistan has Tashkent’s cooperation in moving material across Uzbek territory.
But the critics are firm. Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, at a demonstration outside the EU Commission, said: “We don’t take issue with President Barroso meeting with President Karimov [providing that] he is prepared to publicly, openly, strongly and directly raise the urgent human rights concerns that need to be raised: the release of imprisoned human rights defenders, the lack of any functioning civil society in Uzbekistan, the persistent use of child labour in the cotton industry and other human rights abuses that have persisted for so long.”
The offices of the EU’s foreign affairs chief, the president of the European Parliament and the European Council president said these officials had no plans to meet President Karimov.