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Torture, abuse mark Uzbekistan's rights record: U.S.

ALMATY (Reuters) - Uzbekistan jailed political opponents, routinely tortured prisoners and committed other serious rights violations last year, effectively making it Central Asia’s most authoritarian state, the United States said.

In its annual survey of human rights in 194 countries, the U.S. State Department used considerably stronger language to describe abuses in Uzbekistan than in reporting on other nations in the ex-Soviet region north of Afghanistan and Iran.

“The government continued to commit serious abuses and authorities restricted political and civil liberties,” it said.

“...Law enforcement and security officers routinely beat and otherwise mistreated detainees to obtain confessions or incriminating information.”

The sharp language comes despite Washington’s steps to normalize relations with Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation which has agreed to host an alternative supply route for NATO-led troops fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.

“Torture and abuse were common in prisons... Family members reported several deaths in custody of prisoners who were serving sentences on charges related to religious extremism,” it said.

Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry spokesman said he could not immediately comment on the report.

A Muslim nation with a Soviet-style command economy, Uzbekistan has long rejected Western allegations of mass human rights violations, saying its actions are in line with its laws.

President Islam Karimov, in power for 20 years, tolerates no dissent and public criticism of his rule is taboo.

Over years, Uzbekistan has intensified its campaign against independent media, driving Western outlets out of the country and putting pressure on local reporters. Reuters has been covering Uzbekistan from neighboring Kazakhstan since 2008.

“Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to arrest, harassment, intimidation, and violence, as well as to bureaucratic restrictions on their activity,” the U.S. report said.

Other Central Asian countries’ human rights record also remained poor last year, it said, while adding that there were “modest improvements in some areas” in Turkmenistan, another country it classified as “authorititarian.”

In Kazakhstan, the region’s top oil producer where the United States is the biggest foreign investor, the report said key problems included severe limits on people’s right to change their government, and restrictions on freedom of speech.

Editing by Tim Pearce