May 23, 2018 / 5:00 PM / 5 months ago

Anything you want - except gay rights, Uzbekistan tells U.N.

TASHKENT (Reuters) - Uzbekistan plans to gradually implement hundreds of human rights recommendations from a United Nations council, it said on Wednesday, but it made a point of refusing to decriminalize homosexuality calling it irrelevant to its society.

Human rights groups and bodies routinely criticized the government of the mostly Muslim Central Asian nation over human rights issues under President Islam Karimov who ran the country from 1989 until his death in 2016.

The former Soviet republic of 32 million started re-engaging human rights bodies under the new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, as it sought to establish closer ties with the West and attract badly needed foreign investment.

Mirziyoyev has overseen the release of several prominent Karimov-era political prisoners and ordered thousands of people to be stricken off a blacklist of potential exremists. In a landmark ruling, an Uzbek court this month set free a dissident journalist charged with anti-government propaganda.

But its refusal to budge on gay rights shows there are limits to the Tashkent government’s willingness to accommodate Western standards.

Uzbekistan presented its third human rights report at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this month, the first one since the leadership change.

“When we went to Geneva to present the report there was not the nervousness that there used to be (before),” Deputy Justice Minister Mahmud Istamov told reporters in Tashkent on Wednesday.

“We went there keeping our heads high this time because of the changes that have occurred over the past one-and-a-half years,” he added, referring to Mirziyoyev’s presidency.

Another Uzbek official, director of the National Human Rights Centre Akmal Saidov, said Uzbekistan has received over 200 recommendations at the UN council meeting nearly all of which it would gradually implement.

Officials said, in particular, that Tashkent was considering joining the UN convention on torture and would reduce cotton plantations which have long attracted criticism because of the use of forced labor.

The only recommendation Uzbekistan has flatly rejected was that on LGBT rights.

“This is not on our agenda. We have not accepted this recommendation,” Istamov said. “This is not a topical subject for us.”

Uzbekistan and its neighbor Turkmenistan are the only ex-Soviet nations that have kept in place the Communist-era ban on male homosexual relationships, punishable by prison time.

Reporting by Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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