Islam Karimov: Uzbekistan president's death confirmed

  • Published
Media caption,

Steve Rosenberg assesses the legacy of Islam Karimov

The Uzbek government has confirmed the death of President Islam Karimov, six days after he was taken to hospital with a suspected brain haemorrhage.

One of Asia's most authoritarian leaders, Mr Karimov, 78, died after 27 years in power.

His funeral will be overseen by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev, seen as a potential successor.

Rights groups say Mr Karimov repressed opposition to his rule but for supporters he represented stability.

He will be buried on Saturday in his home city of Samarkand and three days of mourning will be observed.

A United Nations report has described the use of torture under Mr Karimov as "systematic".

The late leader often justified his strong-arm tactics by highlighting the danger from Islamist militancy in the mainly Muslim country, which borders Afghanistan.

Expressing his condolences in a statement (in Russian), Russian President Vladimir Putin described Mr Karimov as a statesman "who had contributed to the security and stability of Central Asia" and who would be a "great loss for the people of Uzbekistan".

Reading the signs: Analysis by Sarah Rainsford, BBC News, Moscow

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Police outside the Tashkent hospital where Islam Karimov was being treated

The official announcement of Islam Karimov's death came on Friday night but Turkey's prime minister had sent condolences to Tashkent hours earlier - live on television, suggesting the funeral invitations had already gone out. So why did the Uzbek authorities hold back with their statement?

It is possible they were focussed on practicalities - preparing the burial site and gathering suitably senior world dignitaries for the send-off. Perhaps, too, Uzbekistan's powerful security service was stalling, watching for any hint of unrest or a power grab?

But Islam Karimov ruled for more than a quarter of a century without naming a successor so the delay could well point to a struggle for power behind the scenes. It is hard to know, in such a closed system.

That has left Uzbekistan-watchers trying to read the signs. In Soviet times, whoever led the funeral commission would end up running the country. That may mean Prime Minister Mirziyoyev is the man to watch but for Uzbekistan all this is unprecedented and it is early days.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Police could be seen guarding an area in Samarkand on Friday

'Immense pain'

President Putin addressed his message to Uzbek senate leader Nigmatulla Yuldashev who, under the constitution, becomes acting president pending early elections.

Mr Yuldashev is unlikely to fill the presidential role more permanently, analysts say.

Mr Mirziyoyev has been in office since 2003 and his deputy, Rustam Azimov, is also seen as a key player.

News of Mr Karimov's death was finally confirmed after several foreign leaders and diplomatic sources reported it on Friday, following days of rumours that he had already died.

"Dear compatriots, it is with an immense pain in our hearts that we inform you of the death of our dear president," a state TV presenter said.

Image source, Instagram
Image caption,
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva's post

One of Mr Karimov's daughters, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, posted a black square on Instagram with the words: "He left us... I choose my words and cannot believe it myself..."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Some say Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev could have the upper hand

Earlier, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim broke news of the death at a televised meeting of his cabinet.

Reports from diplomatic sources suggested several regional leaders were making plans to visit Samarkand for the funeral.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is expected to represent Russia.

How rumours grew:

  • Sunday: President Karimov "receiving in-patient treatment", Uzbek cabinet of ministers announces
  • Monday: Daughter Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva writes on Instagram that he has suffered a brain haemorrhage
  • Wednesday: Government cancels some celebrations for independence day on Thursday
  • Thursday: Mr Karimov's independence day speech read out on state TV by a presenter
  • Friday: Government confirms death

Some human rights groups say the Uzbek government is one of the most repressive in the world, notably after a crackdown in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005, when hundreds were killed.

Mr Karimov's followers argue that curbs on freedom are a small price to pay for law and order.

"Yes of course, it's a price for stability, because we see what is happening now in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Afghanistan and even in Europe - you cannot defend yourself from the terrorist attacks," Sherzod Igamberdiev, a lawyer in Tashkent, told BBC News.

"If you put all your efforts into stopping terrorism, you will have criticism, but we live here, we know the situation on the inside, we are satisfied with him, we love him."

Republic of Uzbekistan

Capital: Tashkent

  • Population 32 million

  • Area 447,400 sq km (172,700 sq miles)

  • Major languages Uzbek, Russian, Tajik

  • Major religion Islam

  • Life expectancy 68 years (men), 74 years (women)

  • Currency Uzbek som

Analysts say Mr Karimov has played Russia, China and the West against each other to keep Uzbekistan from total isolation and to receive limited US aid.

Strains in relations with Moscow have appeared intermittently, notably when Tashkent suspended its membership of a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. In 2014, Russia wrote off most of Uzbekistan's foreign debt to Moscow, forgiving $865m.