Almaty, Kazakhstan (AP) - Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that it has been forced to close its office in Uzbekistan after facing years of harassment at the hands of the authoritarian Central Asian nation's authorities.
The move comes amid growing pressure on domestic rights activists, despite diplomatic overtures by the United States and international calls to implement democratic reforms.
"With the expulsion of Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek government sends a clear message that it isn't willing to tolerate critical scrutiny of its human rights record," Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a statement.
Uzbekistan lies on a key supply route for NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan, making it a valuable ally for the West. It also has begun exporting substantial quantities of electricity to Afghanistan.
The country's strategic importance has made the United States reluctant to criticize Uzbekistan over its rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. It demanded that the U.S. and the European Union pursue a more robust human rights policy with Uzbekistan.
The group said it has been routinely impeded from completing its work in the country and that its researchers have been denied visas and accreditation. Human Rights Watch said its departure from Uzbekistan follows moves by the Justice Ministry earlier this week to close its office in the capital, Tashkent.
The Justice Ministry said it was unable to immediately comment on the closure.
Uzbekistan's crackdown on activists has been relentless since the brutal suppression of an uprising in the eastern town of Andijan in May 2005. Witnesses and rights groups said government troops killed hundreds of unarmed civilians, but the government said 187 died and blamed Islamists for stoking the violence.
More than a dozen human rights and political activists and independent journalists are currently languishing in jail on trumped-up charges, Human Rights Watch said.
International rights monitors and media have been continually denied access to the country.
President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, raised faint hopes of a political thaw in November when he called for enhancement of democratic standards in the justice system as a way of protecting people's rights and freedoms.
Activists say, however, that the use of torture by police and security agents remains systematic in Uzbekistan.
"Methods commonly used include beatings with truncheons, electric shock, hanging by wrists and ankles, rape and sexual humiliation, asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks, and threats of physical harm to relatives," Human Rights Watch said.
The disappearance of another rights group in Uzbekistan could lead to yet further rights infringements.
"The Uzbek government's persistent refusal to allow independent rights groups to carry out our work exacerbates the already dire human rights situation in the country, allowing severe abuses to go unreported, and further isolating the country's courageous and beleaguered human rights community," Roth said.