Uzbek leader wins new term

( AP ) - Uzbekistan's authoritarian President Islam Karimov, who has ruled the Central Asian nation for nearly two decades, has won another seven-year term with 88.1 percent of the votes, according to early returns released by Central Election Commission on Monday - an election critics dismissed as a sham.

Karimov faced three other contenders in the vote Sunday, but all of them publicly supported him. The election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election failed to meet an array of democratic standards.

Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim nation of 27 million, is a member of the OSCE - which aims to promote democratic standards - but is one of the most politically repressive of the former Soviet states. Most of Karimov's opponents have been sent to jail or into exile, and authorities have muzzled news media.

The Associated Press and some other international news organizations were denied accreditation to cover the election.

The three other candidates in the race were given little coverage in state-controlled media. On election day, state television broadcast a series of programs extolling Uzbekistan as developing democratically and economically under Karimov - despite economic stagnation due to his resistance of market reforms.

"In the context of democratic development, it is notable that this time there were more candidates. ... But since all candidates in the present election publicly endorsed the incumbent, the electorate was deprived of a genuine choice," Walter Siegl, the OSCE's ambassador to Uzbekistan, said in a statement.

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, which has been the subject of intense rivalry between the United States, Russia and China.

Karimov flirted with the United States and allowed U.S. troops to use an air base in his country for operations in Afghanistan weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. But he kicked the U.S. forces out after the White House criticized the bloody crackdown on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005.

Witnesses and human rights groups say government troops in Andijan killed some 700 mostly unarmed civilians, but Karimov's government put the death toll at 187 and accused Islamic militants of instigating the violence.

After the Andijan crackdown, Karimov's government threw out several foreign media organizations and almost all aid groups, accusing them of trying to foment a revolution.

Karimov's clampdown on Muslims who worship outside state-controlled institutions has fueled radical Islam throughout the region, adding to tension in an already troubled part of the world.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in November that Uzbek prison authorities routinely beat prisoners and use electric shock, asphyxiation and sexual humiliation to extract information and confessions.

Karimov, who will turn 70 next month, came to lead Uzbekistan as the Communist Party boss in 1989 in what was then a Soviet republic and Soviet industry's main cotton supplier. He was elected president in 1991 and again in 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 reported numerous cases of multiple voting throughout the country and official pressure on voters at polling stations to cast ballots for Karimov.

Karimov has resisted market reforms since the Soviet disintegration, plunging most of the population into poverty. The country is a major exporter of cotton, gold, oil and natural gas, but until recently, one U.S. government report estimated that economic growth here was flat.

While taking a hostile stance toward the West, Karimov has sought to strengthen ties with Russia and China.

An observer mission of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose Russia-dominated grouping of ex-Soviet republics, hailed Sunday's vote. "It was a major factor in further democratization of social life in Uzbekistan," mission head Sergei Lebedev of Russia was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Russia's own Dec. 2 parliamentary elections came under intense international criticism.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin quickly called Karimov to congratulate him on his victory, and the two leaders hailed the "spirit of alliance and partnership" in the bilateral ties, the Kremlin said.

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