Referendum criticised by human rights groups

Uzbeks voted on Sunday on whether to lengthen the presidential term, a move that human rights groups criticised as an attempt by President Islam Karimov to expand his power.

"This referendum looks like the farce which we saw once in 1995. Now the situation repeats, Uzbekistan's President wants to extend his authority for the period 2005-2007," Mikhail Ardzinov, Chairman of the Independent Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, told IRIN from the Uzbek capital Tashkent on Monday.

Election officials said about 92 percent of the country's 13.2 million voters cast ballots in the referendum, which was widely expected to pass. Results were expected late on Monday. The US State Department said last week it was not sending election observers because of Uzbekistan's history of rigged votes.

The referendum, which was approved by the Uzbek parliament in December, asked voters two questions: whether to extend the five-year presidential term to seven years, and whether to introduce a two-house parliament. The current parliament is dominated by Karimov loyalists.

Ardzinov said that President Karimov had decided to hold the referendum now because of Washington's current favourable disposition towards Tashkent. The Central Asian nation has given strong support for the US-led military operation in neighbouring Afghanistan. Karimov has allowed US troops to use the Khanabad air base, and more than 1,000 U.S. troops are now stationed there.

Central Asia watchers were also critical of the Uzbek leader's move. "This is another attempt by President Karimov to prolong his rule. I wish he could have allowed the opening up of politics to other political forces but unfortunately that's not the case," regional analyst Ahmed Rashid told IRIN in Islamabad.

After casting his ballot, Karimov was quoted as saying the referendum marked "a major step on the road toward democratisation of the state and society." Election officials have said that the referendum, if it passes, will not apply retroactively to Karimov's own term, which expires in 2005. But he would still be eligible to seek another term.

Karimov, 63, became Uzbekistan's Communist Party chief in 1989 and was elected president shortly before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1995, parliament extended his five-year term until 2000. Karimov was re-elected in 2000, winning over 90 percent of the vote, according to official results.

International human rights groups have knocked Karimov for his crackdown on religious groups, the media and political dissent. Senior US lawmakers have emphasised that while Washington is grateful for Uzbekistan's help in the anti-terror campaign, the US continues to be concerned about human rights in the former Soviet republic.

"There is no political opposition in Uzbekistan. All mass-media is under the president's control, organisations monitoring human rights like mine cannot express their objection or comments within the country, so we are trying to contact international mass-media," Ardzinov said.

Karimov said the term extension was necessary to tackle all of the issues facing Uzbekistan. He also told the Russian ITAR-Tass news agency that the bicameral parliament would be handed some key executive powers and could function more professionally than the current legislature.