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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 December 2007, 15:13 GMT
Voting ends in Uzbekistan poll
An elderly Uzbek woman casts her vote at her home in Tashkent (23/12/2007)
Human rights organisations say the vote is neither free nor fair

Polls have closed in Uzbekistan after a presidential election which incumbent Islam Karimov is expected to win against largely token opposition.

Mr Karimov has faced widespread Western criticism for human rights abuses during his 18-year rule.

The two terms he is allowed under the constitution have ended and there is no explanation as to why he can run again.

Many organisations, including the BBC, have been refused permission into the country to cover the election.

But reports from inside the country say there has been an increased police presence in all major cities.

Uzbekistan has also closed all borders with neighbouring states.

After casting his vote, Mr Karimov told local reporters that people "know what they are voting for".

"For tomorrow, for peace in our country, for our country's development and prosperity of the people."

Islam Karimov

The head of the election commission, Mirzaulugbek Abdusalomov, told Uzbek television that the vote was valid as more than the required legal minimum of 33% of the electorate took part.

Election monitors say that 80% of registered voters took part in the election, although this figure cannot be verified.

Many Uzbeks have said there is little chance of a change in leadership.

"People are not happy, but the state controls everything," one woman told Agence France Presse.

"If you say one wrong thing you can find yourself unemployed or, worse in prison."

But the BBC's Natalia Antelava, reporting from nearby Krygyzstan, says some people have told her they are voting for opposition candidates to make a point.

Others she spoke to said they were too busy trying to survive to vote, or that there was no point as they knew the outcome already.

Moved abroad

Mr Karimov, 69, is standing for a third seven-year term.

He faces three virtually unknown candidates who have all praised his running of the economy and have not explicitly asked Uzbeks to vote for them.

Mr Karimov, the top Communist leader when Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic, says he will take the country "towards a free society and prosperous life".

Map

Rights organisations say that although there are four candidates, the poll cannot be regarded as free and fair.

Human Rights Watch said true political opposition was suppressed and that the government "severely restricts free expression and persecutes independent journalists".

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) does have a 21-strong team observing the poll, but said comprehensive monitoring was pointless "due to the apparent limited nature of the competition".

Mr Karimov's rule has been marred by the crackdown on opposition in the city of Andijan in 2005.

Government troops opened fire on thousands of demonstrators. Eye witnesses said hundreds of civilians died at a peaceful protest but Mr Karimov insisted the security forces had killed only 189 Islamist militants.

The government has since been accused of many cases of torture.

If you say one wrong thing you can find yourself unemployed or worse, in prison
Uzbek voter

Millions of Uzbeks have gone to live and work abroad.

Mr Karimov has also become more stridently anti-Western amid criticism over Andijan.

In the presidential election of 2000, Mr Karimov's supposed opponent admitted he voted for the Uzbek leader.

The country is rich in energy and resources but its economy is in dire shape says Natalia Antelava.

The media is controlled by the state, the internet is censored and agents of President Karimov's powerful secret services are everywhere, keeping a close watch on every citizen, she says.

Analysts say that the black market is the only functioning economy and that the country depends heavily on the income from an estimated 1.5 million illegal migrants working in Russia and neighbouring Kazakhstan.

Exit polls are prohibited by law, but preliminary results are expected by 1300 GMT on Monday.



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