Russian news agencies are citing the government of Uzbekistan as saying that President Islam Karimov has died, ending days of rumors about the condition of the 78-year-old hardliner who led the Central Asian country with an iron hand since its independence.
Karimov crushed all opposition in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan as its only president in a quarter-century of independence from the Soviet Union.
He had suffered a brain hemorrhage a week earlier, daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva said in a social media post.
Karimov was known as a tyrant with an explosive temper and a penchant for cruelty. His troops machine-gunned hundreds of unarmed demonstrators to death during a 2005 uprising, he jailed thousands of political opponents, and his henchmen reportedly boiled some dissidents to death.
He came under widespread international criticism from human rights groups, but because of Uzbekistan’s strategic location as a vital supply route for the war in neighboring Afghanistan, the West turned a blind eye to Karimov’s worst abuses.
Uzbekistan, a country of 30 million people famous for its apricot orchards, cotton fields and ancient stone cities along the Silk Road, had been one of the Muslim world’s paragons of art and learning.
But Karimov cracked down on any form of Islam that wasn’t patently subservient to him. His leadership style was epitomized by propaganda posters often displayed in Uzbekistan that depicted Karimov alongside Tamerlane, a 14th-century emperor who had conquered a vast region of West, South and Central Asia.
He was known to shout and swear at officials during meetings and it was widely rumored that in bursts of anger he would beat officials and throw ashtrays at them.
Karimov’s emphasis on state controls over the economy, along with endemic corruption, have stymied Uzbekistan’s development, despite its considerable resources of gas and gold, as well as its cotton exports. Millions of Uzbeks have flooded into Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan to support their families with remittances that amount to a sizable part of the country’s GDP.
Karimov was suspicious of the West and infuriated by its criticism of his human rights record, but he also dreaded Islamic militancy, fearing it could grow into a strong opposition.
He unleashed a harsh campaign against Muslims starting in 1997 and intensifying in 1999 after eight car bombs exploded near key government buildings in Tashkent. The explosions killed 16 people and wounded more than 100.
“I am ready to rip off the heads of 200 people, to sacrifice their lives, for the sake of peace and tranquility in the country,” Karimov said afterward. “If a child of mine chose such a path, I myself would rip off his head.”
In the next few years, thousands of Muslims who practiced their faith outside government-controlled mosques were rounded up and jailed for alleged links to banned Islamic groups.
In 2004, a series of bombings and attacks on police killed more than 50 people and sparked a new wave of arrests and convictions.
Following 9/11, the West overlooked Karimov’s harsh policies and cut a deal with him in 2001 to use Uzbekistan’s Karshi-Khanabad air base for combat missions in Afghanistan.
During a May 2005 uprising in the eastern city of Andijan, Uzbek troops fired on demonstrators, killing more than 700 people, according to witnesses and human rights groups. It was the world’s worst massacre of protesters since the 1989 bloodbath in China’s Tiananmen Square.
Angered by U.S. criticism of the crackdown, Karimov evicted U.S. forces from the base.
He later quietly softened his position, allowing Uzbekistan to be part of the Northern Distribution Network supply route for Afghanistan, whose utility declined when Russia dropped out of the network in 2015. The United States in turn agreed to start the sale of non-lethal military goods to his regime.
Islam Abduganiyevich Karimov was born on Jan. 30, 1938, and studied economics and engineering in what was then a Soviet republic, rising through the Communist Party bureaucracy.
In 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made Karimov Uzbekistan’s Communist Party chief in the wake of a huge corruption scandal that involved top Uzbek officials. At the time, Karimov was seen as a hard-working and uncorrupt Communist.
On March 24, 1990, the local parliament elected him president of the Uzbek Socialist Republic, and in December 1991, just days after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Karimov won the presidency in a popular vote.
Shaken by a series of ethnic and religious riots in the turbulent years surrounding the Soviet collapse, Karimov was obsessed with stability and security. He said Uzbekistan would follow its own path of reform and would build democracy and a market economy without the turmoil and crises of most other former Soviet nations.
After his 1991 election, the fledgling democratic opposition was banned and forced into exile. The media were muzzled by censorship. Law enforcement and security services grew increasingly powerful and abusive, and the use of torture in prisons was labeled “systematic” by international observers.
The economy remained centralized, with a handful of officials controlling the most lucrative industries and trade. A 1996 ban on the free convertibility of the national currency, the som, blocked trade and foreign investment, while unemployment soared and poverty was widespread.
Karimov was a distant leader. His annual New Year’s address to the nation was always read by a TV anchor. His wife rarely appeared in public, and his vacations were never announced.
But the public was constantly reminded of his leadership by banners with quotes from his speeches posted on buildings and billboards.
All of his election victories were landslides, but none were recognized as free or fair by international observers. His only challenger in 2000, Abdulkhafiz Dzhalolov, said he himself voted for Karimov.
His nephew, opposition journalist Jamshid Karimov, was forcibly committed to a psychiatric institution after a series of articles criticizing his uncle and other officials.
Karimov’s oldest daughter, Gulnara, generated media buzz over her immense wealth, fashion shows and music videos done under the stage name GooGoosha. Sometimes touted as a potential successor to her father, she was both admired and despised among her fellow countrymen.
In 2014, she used her Twitter account to accuse Uzbekistan’s security services of orchestrating a campaign of harassment against her and deceiving her father. Her tweets then stopped, prompting speculation that she and her 15-year-old daughter were under house arrest in Tashkent.
Story by The Associated Press