Uzbekistan buries late strongman Karimov

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives a speech during the memorial service before the funeral of the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Samarkand. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, AFP)
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gives a speech during the memorial service before the funeral of the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Samarkand. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, AFP)

Samarkand - Uzbekistan laid strongman President Islam Karimov to rest on Saturday amid tight security, after his death triggered the deepest period of uncertainty in the country's post-Soviet history with no clear successor in view.

Karimov, 78, was pronounced dead late on Friday after suffering a stroke last weekend and falling into a coma, authorities said, following days of speculation about his rapidly failing health.

An Islamic funeral for the iron-fisted leader - who dominated the ex-Soviet nation for some 27 years - was held in his home city of Samarkand, southwestern Uzbekistan, on Saturday and the country will begin three days of mourning.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the presidents of ex-Soviet Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were among dignitaries attending the memorial service on the famed UNESCO World Heritage Registan square.

Uzbek state television showed footage of mourners carrying Karimov's coffin through a crowd on the historic square encircled by blue-domed madrassas.

"Our people and Uzbekistan have suffered an irreplaceable loss," Russian news wire Interfax quoted Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as saying at the ceremony.

"Death took from our midst the founder of the state of Uzbekistan, a great and dear son of our people."

Loyalist Mirziyoyev headed the organising committee for the funeral, in a sign that he could be the frontrunner to take over long-term from Karimov.

An AFP journalist in Samarkand - which also houses the mausoleum of feared 14th century warlord Tamerlane - said that national flags with black ribbons were hung up and the road to the cemetery where Karimov was to be buried next to his family was strewn with roses.

Police had cordoned off most of the centre of the city and were not letting ordinary citizens or cars through.

'We were all crying'

Despite his brutal quarter-century rule, which earned him a reputation abroad as one of the region's most savage despots who ruthlessly stamped out opposition, people in Karimov's hometown mourned his passing and some youths wore black clothes.

"When we found out about his death, all my family - my wife, my son's wife, the children - we were all crying, we couldn't believe it," one local man, 58, told AFP, refusing to give his name.

"It is a great loss for every Uzbek. He made out country free and developed."

Crowds of people had earlier reportedly lined the road to watch and throw flowers at the cortege as it drove through the capital Tashkent.

Karimov was one of a handful of Soviet strongmen who clung to power after their homelands gained independence from Moscow in 1991, and he played Russia, the West and China off against each other.

The most serious challenge to his rule came from his eldest daughter, once seen as a possible heir, whom he put under house arrest in 2014 after a family power struggle erupted publicly.

Uzbekistan has never held elections deemed free and fair by international monitors, and Karimov won his fifth terms in office last March with 90 percent of the vote.

Under Uzbek law, senate head Nigmatulla Yuldashev has now become acting president until early elections are held.

His death pushes the strategically located landlocked country into a "phase of uncertainty", the head of the Russian lower house of parliament's international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, said Friday.

Legacy of repression

Rights groups - which have long accused Karimov's regime of the most serious abuses including torture and forced labour in the lucrative cotton industry - have slammed his time in power as a catastrophe for Uzbekistan.

But Karimov portrayed himself as guarantor of stability and bulwark against radical Islam on the borders of Afghanistan, crushing fundamentalist groups in the majority Muslim republic.

"Islam Karimov leaves a legacy of a quarter century of ruthless repression," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Karimov ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: torture, disappearances, forced labour, and the systematic crushing of dissent."

Despite Karimov's brutal record, Uzbekistan still receives US aid and both Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian leader Vladimir Putin have jetted in for talks over the past year.

As world powers continue to vie for influence, activists question how the nation's rights record can ever improve.

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