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[Washington Babylon]

Blogger Junket to Uzbekistan: Torture chambers likely not among tour stops

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A short while back I noted here that Gulnara Karimova, daughter and henchwoman of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, had recently hosted rock star Sting in Tashkent, the nation’s capital. Sting took in a fashion show and other events with Gulnara, whose father’s regime killed one prisoner by immersion in boiling water, and in 2005 slaughtered hundreds of protesters in the town of Andijan. “The scale of this killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre,” Human Rights Watch said in a study of the events at Andijan.

Now Gulnara has hired an American firm to bring bloggers to “a gala event in Tashkent,” to quote an email that Chris Stone, vice president at Atlas International
Partners
, has been sending to invitees. The email says that the event will “showcase the work of young Uzbek artists” and is being sponsored by the Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, which is chaired by Gulnara Karimova. Here’s an excerpt from the email:

The Foundation wants to bring a couple of well-known bloggers over to Tashkent to live-blog the event — and it would like at least one to be a public policy or foreign affairs blogger, undoubtedly because Ms. Karimova is a political figure in Uzbekistan in her own right. That said, the live blogging would involve talking about the cultural and artistic aspects of the event, and your touristic impressions of Uzbekistan; it should not be overtly political…We believe that the Foundation’s primary aim is to get people talking about Uzbekistan as a cultural destination, like Egypt, rather than a place people think about only when there is a crisis in Central Asia.

We can offer you $1,000 in compensation, and would cover business-class airfare from the US to Tashkent (you would probably leave on the 14th or 15th and return the 18th or 19th, although you’re welcome to extend your visit if you want), your stay in the Intercontinental Hotel in Tashkent, and incidentals such as meals and visa fees.

Finally, I should emphasize that I am making this inquiry on a preliminary basis; the Foundation has to approve our proposal. I understand that Ms. Karimova is reviewing the proposal personally and will get back to us within the next 24 hours, which would be necessary to get your visa processed on Friday. Our feeling is that she is likely to give us a green light, so I am assembling a team of bloggers now.

If you are interested, it would be helpful if you can let me know as soon possible. It would also be helpful to know how many hits per day your blog receives and whether you would be interested in writing about the event in any of the print media to which you contribute.

I’m not sure who is on Gulnara’s “team” of bloggers, but if you start reading posts later this month about the exciting arts world of Tashkent, it’s a safe bet that it will be the handiwork of one of the junketeers. And for those who want to go, you can suck up to Stone by telling him that you’re a big fan of Gulnara’s music. Just don’t say anything about Andijan.

I called Stone and he tells me that his firm offers “strategic advisory” services and that Gulnara is “trying to position herself as a patron of the arts.” He asked if I was interested in going and I said I was not. I asked if he didn’t think it was unethical for journalists to accept an offer of money and travel to a place like Uzbekistan, especially when it was clearly expected that nothing unfavorable would be written. “I guess it would depend on whether the blogger was a journalist or not,” he said. “Travel writers get paid to go to places all the time.”

Stone would not disclose which bloggers were going on the junket but he told me that he had approached Abovethelaw.com and suggested strongly that a blogger there had agreed to go on the Uzbek trip. However, he refused to answer a direct question about that.

I emailed the blog’s editor, Elie Mystal, and associate editor, Kashmir Hill, to see if they could clarify the matter. They have not yet replied to my email; if they do, I’ll update this post immediately.

Update: Hill emailed back now to say: “This comes as news to me. i don’t know anything about it.”

Managing editor David Lat says: “As far as I know, neither I nor anyone at Above the Law is going to Uzbekistan!”

So the list of junketeers remains entirely unknown.

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