Exposed: Public relations firm’s dealings with some of the world’s most controversial regimes.

Newspaper Article

- By Shaun Walker, Russian Correspondent, The Independent, UK

Most of the countries of the former Soviet Union have problems with democracy and human rights, to put it mildly. There is the unpleasant dictatorship of Belarus, on Europe’s doorstep, and the surreal personality cult in Turkmenistan, with golden statues of the country’s first President and giant portraits of his successor on every building.

But even in this distinctly dodgy company, Uzbekistan stands out as a particularly unpleasant state – the worst of the worst.

“Bell Pottinger Group is not the first to appear willing to do business with the regime.”

It is no exaggeration to call the state – which is run by the ageing and reclusive Islam Karimov – one of the world’s most vicious dictatorships. No dissent is tolerated and critics often meet sticky ends. Children are turfed out of school for weeks at a time and forced to pick cotton in the fields.

The population lives in fear – on the one occasion when dissent burst into the open, in the city of Andijan in 2005, Mr Karimov’s security forces opened fire on the protesters, killing hundreds. The Uzbek regime refused to allow an independent investigation into the violence.

Western journalists are largely banned from entering the country and international organisations have been kicked out one by one.

Independent thought among locals is also crushed mercilessly. Tashkent had the first privately run theatre in the whole of the Soviet Union, which continued staging politically daring plays in independent Uzbekistan. The theatre’s director, Mark Weil, was bludgeoned to death outside his apartment in 2007. The attackers were never caught.

Bell Pottinger Group is not the first to appear willing to do business with the regime.

When the football coach Luiz Felipe Scolari left Chelsea, he took up a highly profitable role as coach of Bunyodkor, the Tashkent football team that at the time was believed to be funded by Mr Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara. She is a socialite and jetsetter who critics say positions herself as the acceptable face of the regime, legitimising the Karimov family’s financial assets abroad. She also releases music videos under the moniker GooGoosha, her father’s pet name for her. And she even has her own fashion line.

The singer Sting was criticised in 2009 for accepting cash to perform at an arts festival in Tashkent that was organised by Ms Karimov. Sting was pictured laughing and joking with her.

In a statement, the singer said: “I am well aware of the Uzbek President’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that.

“I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.”

When Craig Murray, who was appointed Britain’s ambassador to the country in 2002, witnessed the brutality of the Uzbek regime up close he gave a number of speeches that were extremely critical of the regime and of the American and British willingness to ignore Mr Karimov’s brutal side in order to win favour for co-operation in the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Mr Murray referred to Mr Karimov’s government as a “fascist regime” and attempted to speak out for activists and ordinary Uzbeks who had fallen foul of it. He sent cables to London detailing widespread torture and incidents such as the boiling alive of two Islamist dissidents. He was dismissed from his post by the Foreign Office in 2004.

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