Europe's leaders have been accused of putting economic and political interests ahead of human rights by suspending sanctions imposed on the leaders of gas-rich Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre.
EU foreign ministers agreed to lift travel restrictions against the Uzbek Defence Minister, Ruslan Mirzayev, the National Security chief, Rustam Inoyatov, and six others, saying it was "with a view to encouraging the Uzbek authorities to take positive steps to improve the human rights situation." Campaigners criticised that as false logic and said they were deeply disappointed by EU leaders caving in on the visa ban.
Veronika Szente, the advocacy director of Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch, said: "It's a huge backtracking and, beyond the negative impact on human rights in Uzbekistan, it also seriously undermines the EU's own standing as a protector of human rights. This is happening in the broader context of the EU trying to deepen its co-operation with central Asia, including gas and oil."
Germany, which finds itself competing with China and Russia as it seeks to source more of its energy from central Asia and which has a military base in the southern Uzbek city of Termez, was the driving force behind the easing of sanctions. Britain, Sweden, Ireland and the Netherlands opposed the move but did not actively block the German initiative.
The Andijan massacre shocked the world in May 2005 when Uzbek troops opened fire on unarmed men, women and children who had gathered in the town's main square for what turned into protests against the regime of President Islam Karimov. Hundreds died, according to witnesses, but the Uzbek authorities say 187 people were killed and that they were all guerrillas or "terrorists".
EU officials, defending the suspension of sanctions, highlighted some positive moves from Tashkent, including the abolition of the death penalty, a first round of talks on human rights and talks on Andijan.
"I don't think we should just leave it out. I think we should engage with them and really try to work step by step in order to improve the situation in human rights," said the EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
Human Rights Watch believes the EU is surrendering critical leverage in its campaign to get Tashkent to mend its ways. It also points out that Uzbekistan has not met criteria laid down by the EU. Thirteeen human rights activists are still in jail despite a call from Brussels in May for their release.
EU ministers said the suspension would be reviewed after six months and warned that the restrictions could be reinstated "in light of the actions of the Uzbek authorities in the area of human rights".
Critics say that is a hollow threat. "For the regime, their reading has been that all they have to do is talk about human rights and they get the money, and this latest decision will only reinforce that," John MacLeod, a senior editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, explained. "When it comes to the crunch, the EU puts pragmatic advantage over human rights concerns."