Namangan, Uzbekistan, Nov. 5--Uzbek President Islam Karimov, America's new and close ally in its campaign against terrorism, is a strict but compassionate man. Practice Islam in a manner Karimov deems misguided and go to prison. But beg the president's pardon and the sentence can drop from 16 years to 12. Survive a spell in a camp where torture and deprivation are well documented, repent, and maybe get amnesty.

Karimov says the policies are crucial to his own war on terrorism. But Uzbekistan's disdain for religious freedoms and human rights has earned it censure from the United States and its Western allies.

The concern among human-rights activists is whether America will back off on its criticism and allow Karimov to crack down even harder. With the number of U.S. troops based on Uzbek soil rising past 3,500, Karimov is a shadowy potentate of a strategically important former Soviet republic.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Uzbekistan in early October and is scheduled to return in the next few days for another visit and more talks with Karimov. Discussions during the first visit apparently did not touch on human-rights issues.

Bosit Ibragimov knew about Karimov's policies three years ago when he was being sentenced to a notorious prison camp in western Uzbekistan. Ibragimov, then 29, was advised to admit his guilt before the state and plead for mercy. But arguing that his studies of the Koran and his gatherings in a local mosque were nothing requiring confession, Ibragimov did not seek Karimov's compassion.

Now Ibragimov is dead, and the only apologies come from his father. "I asked my son's forgiveness for not doing enough to keep him alive," said Azimjon Ibragimov, whose care package of food and medicine was rejected by officials at a Tashkent hospital. "They said they had orders from above," the father said after burying his son recently in their Fergana Valley city of Namangan. "This is a hospital. What is the point of giving them medicine if you do not give them food?"

Similar questions plague thousands of Uzbek families who have lost their men to the grave, prison or life on the run. The most common: What has my son (or father, or brother, or husband) done wrong?

In the Uzbek legal sense, most of them have violated a vague statute that makes it a crime to challenge the state and the constitutional order. "Article 159," says Bosit Ibragimov's mother, specifying the statute that doomed her son in April 1998.

Article 159 comes up repeatedly in conversations with Uzbek families short a man or two around the house. It rolls off their tongue as easily, if not in quite the same context, as Americans might invoke the First Amendment.

Nasiba Kakharova's father, husband and two brothers are in various labor camps across Uzbekistan. The women left behind get a monthly state stipend of 3,000 soms (about $6 by the official government rate and half that on the black market). That hardly feeds the household's six children, ages 4 to 9.

Kakharova, 26, lives a few blocks from the Ibragimovs in Namangan. The streets that separate them are dusty and narrow and centuries old, bounded by stucco walls and the traditions of helping out and keeping an eye on one's neighbors. conomic hardship has made the helping out part harder in the decade since the Soviet Union collapsed. The keeping tabs part has been exploited by a government that uses ancient Uzbek traditions of local control to help stamp out dissent.

Kakharova's men all violated Article 159, though exactly how remains unclear even to them. The prosecutor's testimony at the trial of two of the men focused on a 1990 gathering attended by about a dozen people interested in the Koran. At the time, Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union.

Bosit Ibragimov attended that gathering, too. That was part of the evidence the court used to sentence him to 16 years in prison and send him to a brutal place called Jaslyk not far from the Aral Sea. Except for a couple of stints at a Tashkent hospital, Jaslyk would be Ibragimov's last home.

As Ibragimov's wife, parents, brothers and aunts and uncles sat in mourning at the family home in Namangan, they recalled nearly four years of abuses, slights and humiliations rained upon them by government authorities. Some of the details seemed so insignificant. How does a spat over a telephone at the local police office three years ago compare with the fact that just days earlier the state had sent home the body of a young man who was once strong and healthy?

The details obscure the larger fact of Bosit's fate. By pouring their frustration and grief into how the government insulted the family or kept it in the dark, the relatives do not have to face head-on what happened to Ibragimov. When 32-year-old Bosit Ibragimov died at 4 a.m. on Oct. 17, doctors scribbled down the cause as heart failure complicated by tuberculosis.

For the grieving parents, the idea that Ibragimov died because he was weak of heart is too much to bear. "Starvation, malnutrition, that's what killed him," said the father, Azimjon, the only one of the family with enough emotion left to weep. "If they had not tortured him, my son would never have been in the condition he was in," said the mother, Fatima Khodubayeva.

Torture of suspects and prisoners is common in Uzbekistan, rights activists say. So are forced confessions. Treatment in some prison camps verges on barbaric, according to Tolib Yakubov, a rights activist in Tashkent.

Karimov acknowledges that the country's dismal rights reputation is at least partly deserved. "Human-rights issues, issues of freedom of the press, issues connected with how all these democratic values are handled here ... yes, we have always admitted these problems," Karimov said in a news conference last month after a meeting with Rumsfeld.

About 7,600 people, or nearly 10 percent of the total prison population, are incarcerated in Uzbekistan for their religious activities, according to conservative estimates by rights activists. An additional 200 people are imprisoned for their political work.

The government denies this. But official figures from the Interior Ministry, published for the first time a year ago, support the estimates by rights groups. The ministry said 63,900 people were in penitentiaries for offenses from stealing to murder. But for 5,200 of those prisoners, about 8 percent, no crime was listed, only "other."

It may seem odd that a predominantly Muslim country such as Uzbekistan imprisons thousands of people for their adherence to Islam. But the government says that revolutionary and terrorist groups, such as the Namangan-born Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are using religion as a cover. Uzbekistan also wants its people to worship Islam in a certain way.

Mosques must win governmental registration to operate. Thousands that have not been registered have been closed in recent years. A quasi-governmental religious board instructs the nation's clerics on how prayers are to be said and, often, what the imam's message should be on Friday. "This is the correct role for the government," said Anvar Khodzhi Turcunov, the head imam of Tashkent. "It is needed to avoid any conflicts. It is needed to unite us, so that we do not fall into sects or parties. In the Koran it says that we should avoid politics."

Religious and government officials argue that fundamentalist Muslims, loosely and erroneously lumped together as "Wahhabists," breed confusion and instability. Human rights activists and Western diplomats argue that Karimov's tactics to ensure stability could backfire. Repression only breeds extremism, critics argue.

But Karimov marches on, holding up his policy as a model for all former Soviet republics dealing with threats from the Taliban in Afghanistan and other extremist groups who talk of creating a pan-Islamic state across Central Asia.

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