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Uzbekistan's autocratic leader seeks to extend his rule in tightly controlled vote

Uzbekistan's autocratic leader seeks to extend his rule in tightly controlled vote

Uzbeks were casting ballots Sunday in a tightly controlled presidential vote that is widely expected to extend the rule of one of the most autocratic and anti-Western leaders in strategic Central Asia.
President Islam Karimov, a former Communist boss, is running for a new term in office against three little-known challengers who publicly say they support his policies and are seen by critics of the regime as puppets meant to create the illusion of a free contest.
Almost half the population of ex-Soviet Central Asia lives in Uzbekistan, and the country's political course and stability are crucial for the energy-rich region in which Russia, China and the United States are vying for influence.
Journalists were denied access to a heavily guarded polling station in the capital Tashkent where Karimov cast his ballot Sunday morning as scores of green-uniformed policemen patrolled city center streets, activists said.
A brief state UzA news agency report on Karimov's voting contained no remark by him.
The fact that the presidency is contested by several candidates is "a proof that our country has built a democratic state," said the UzA report on its Web site.
During his 18-year rule, Karimov has jailed or exiled all his political rivals and has faced wide criticism for human rights abuses including torture and show trials.
Karimov's abusive clampdown on Muslims who worship outside state-controlled institutions has fueled radical Islam throughout the region, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, adding to tension in an already troubled part of the world.
Karimov has maintained a hostile stance toward the West since he ordered the shutdown of a U.S. air base in 2005 following Western criticism of his government's bloody crackdown on an uprising in the city of Andijan.
He also threw out several foreign media organizations and almost all aid groups, accusing them of trying to foment a revolution, and has sought to strengthen ties with Russia and China.
Karimov, who will turn 70 next month, became the top Communist boss in 1989 in what was then a Soviet republic. Since the Soviet collapse, he has won two presidential elections _ in 1991 and 1999 _ and had his term extended twice, once through parliament and again in a referendum.
None of those elections were recognized by international observers as free or fair.
Human rights activists have said the government pressured voters to cast ballots for Karimov. Opposition activists also vainly sought a Supreme Court ruling on Karimov's eligibility to run for a new term.
In a speech last month after announcing his intention to run, Karimov said he was sure that Uzbeks wanted the continuity of his policy "of peace, progress and rising living standards."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has sent a limited, 21-person election observation mission, saying that "due to the apparent limited nature of the competition" it sees no point in conducting a comprehensive monitoring on voting day.
Uzbek officials said Karimov's challengers do not criticize him because of Uzbeks' tradition of avoiding confrontation in public, the OSCE said in an interim report on election preparations.
Erkinoi Gofurova, from the Uzbek town of Qora Su, who on Saturday was shopping just across the border in the Kyrgyz town of Kara Suu, said she would vote for Karimov.
"All the advertisement has been for him," she said.
But an Uzbek man who was in Kara Suu for business said he would vote for anyone but Karimov because a new president would mean a new policy. The man, who declined to give his name, fearing official reprisal at home, said it was not good for one person to stay in office too long.
Karimov has resisted market reforms since the Soviet disintegration and has brought the resource-rich nation's economy to collapse, plunging most of its 27 million people into poverty. An estimated 1.5 million Uzbeks have left for Russia and Kazakhstan in recent years as guest workers.
In suppressing the 2005 Andijan revolt, Uzbek government troops killed some 700 mostly unarmed civilians, rights groups and witnesses said. Authorities blamed the violence on Islamic radicals, and said only 187 people died.