Uzbekistan removes 16,000 people from security blacklist

TASHKENT (Reuters) - Uzbekistan has removed about 16,000 people from a 17,000-strong security blacklist of potential Muslim religious extremists, its president said on Friday, in what appears to be part of efforts to pursue more liberal policies in the ex-Soviet republic.

Western countries and rights groups have long criticized Tashkent’s record on democracy and human rights and have accused it of using the blacklist indiscriminately to stifle political and religious dissent in the mainly Muslim nation of 32 million.

Uzbek state media reported this month that a campaign to strike many people off the blacklist was under way, but its scale - as well as the size of the blacklist - had not been known.

“There were well over 17,000 people who were on the list for being involved in (extremist) religious trends and after talking to them again we have removed 16,000 from the religious (extremist) list,” President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said on state television.

“We have removed them from the list, but it would be wrong to leave them alone,” he said, addressing a gathering of Muslim clerics and officials on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

“Now we have to bring them into our society and educate them.”

Mirziyoyev said 9,500 people removed from the list had already been provided with jobs and he urged officials to deal with others while also asking clerics to maintain daily contact with them to ensure they do not “return to the evil path”.

Uzbekistan says it faces serious security threats, including from militant Islamists. But Mirziyoyev also needs to attract more foreign investment to help modernize the creaking economy and create sorely needed jobs.

Mirziyoyev, elected president last December, took control of Central Asia’s most populous nation last September after the death of veteran strongman ruler Islam Karimov who had tolerated no dissent and cracked down hard on Islamists.

Under Karimov, who had ruled Uzbekistan for 27 years, anybody ending up on the blacklist would likely face social ostracism even without any criminal charges. Blacklisted people usually have to report their whereabouts to authorities and seek permission to leave their town or village.

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