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Daily Archives: December 24, 2007

Hong Kong democrats stage hunger strike

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A group of democrats kicked off a week-long hunger strike yesterday,demanding that China promise full democracy here by 2012 as Beijing opened discussions about political
reform in the city.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) went into its week-long meeting to discuss, among
other items, a democratic reform report submitted this month by Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang. 

Uzbeks vote to re-elect hardline president

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by Antoine Lambroschini* Uzbekistan voted yesterday in an election where hardline President Islam Karimov faced only token opposition to his bid for a new seven-year term at the head of the isolated Central Asian state.

Victory for Karimov was seen as a foregone conclusion in a country with no independent media or opposition parties.

The 69-year-old, best known in the outside world for a bloody 2005 crackdown on unrest in the eastern city of Andijan, barely campaigned, while his three nominal challengers were virtual unknowns.

After voting in the capital Tashkent's polling station number 644, Karimov told state television that Uzbeks "know what they are voting for: for the country's future, for peace and development of the country, and for prosperity."

But many in this ex-Soviet republic of 28 million people can barely imagine an alternative. "I voted for Karimov. We are all used to him," pensioner Hakim Abdurakhmanov said in Tashkent.

The Central Election Commission reported an enormous turnout, reaching 59.8 percent of the 16 million eligible voters with eight hours before polls closed. A 33 percent turnout was required to validate the election.

Only a handful of independent election observers were present and few foreign journalists were given permission to enter the country.

However reporters in Tashkent witnessed several clear cases of fraud, including people openly casting multiple ballots and voting several times.

A sprawling country of deserts, mountains and oases, Uzbekistan boasts Samarkand, one of the world's oldest cities and burial place of legendary medieval conqueror Tamerlane.

But despite gas and cotton riches, Uzbekistan has failed to prosper since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, something critics blame on Karimov's uncompromising presidency.

In the run-up to voting, Karimov told foreign diplomats that he wanted "a free society."

However, he suppresses even flickers of opposition. In 2005 he launched a bloody crackdown on mainly unarmed protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in which hundreds were killed, according to human rights activists.

Uzbek authorities blamed the violence entirely on Islamist rebels and said 187 people had been killed.

Karimov's rule has also been marred by accusations of torture levelled by a number of United Nations officials and by evidence produced by a British ambassador that two prisoners had been boiled to death.

In the climate of fear few dare talk openly about opposition to Karimov.

Azamat, a 20-year-old student, said that he had voted for one of the obscure challengers, Akmal Saidov, purely "because he is younger. It's time Karimov went and rested."

Others, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no hope of change.

"People are not happy, but the state controls everything, and if you say one wrong thing you can find yourself unemployed or, worse, in prison," said Irina, at a currency exchange bureau.

"Informers are everywhere, everywhere, everywhere," a taxi driver said.

The last time Karimov faced a genuine opponent at elections was 1991, the year of the Soviet collapse, when he was challenged by poet-turned-politician Muhammad Solih, who later fled into exile.

At the following presidential election, which took place in 2000 due to a referendum to extend his first term, Karimov's nominal opponent admitted to having voted for the Uzbek leader.

No opposition movement, secular or religious, has been granted official registration since.

The authorities have jailed numerous human rights activists and supporters of secular opposition groups, along with thousands of others convicted on Islamic extremism charges.

Between two and five million Uzbeks have left to work abroad, mostly in low-paying jobs, thanks to sluggish economic growth in this country that boasts large natural gas reserves and one of the world's largest cotton industries.

"The Uzbeks have already voted for liberty and prosperity by leaving," said one of the few remaining human rights activists allowed to operate, Surat Ikramov. "Society is completely paralysed."

Europe's top vote monitoring body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Uzbekistan is a member, sent 26 observers, a fraction of the number usually deployed for elections in ex-Soviet republics.

Preliminary results from the election are to be announced at 1300 GMT Monday, the Central Election Commission said.