MOSCOW — Russian news agencies are citing the government of Uzbekistan as saying that President Islam Karimov has died, ending days of rumors about the condition of the 78-year-old hardliner who led the Central Asian country with an iron hand since its independence.
Karimov was reported to have been hospitalized last week and his daughter later said on social media that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage.
Russia’s RIA-Novosti agency said the government announced the funeral would be Saturday in Samarkand, his birthplace. Further details of his death were not immediately available from the mostly opaque country, where media freedom and human rights have been harshly repressed.
Karimov ran an authoritarian government in the Central Asian nation since 1989, and cultivated no apparent successor.
Karimov’s death raises concerns that Uzbekistan could face prolonged infighting among clans over leadership claims, something its Islamic radical movement could exploit. Given the lack of access to the country it’s hard to judge how powerful the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be, but the group has over the years been affiliated with the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State group and has sent fighters abroad.
Under the constitution, if the president dies his duties pass temporarily to the head of the senate until an election can be held within three months. However, the head of the Uzbek senate is regarded as unlikely to seek permanent power and Karimov’s demise is expected to set off a period of jockeying for political influence.
In any case, the passing of the man who harshly cracked down on opposition would not be likely to lead to an immediate relaxation.
Karimov’s death would “mark the end of an era in Uzbekistan, but almost certainly not the pattern of grave human rights abuses. His successor is likely to come from Karimov’s closest circle, where dissenting minds have never been tolerated,” said Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
Uzbekistan celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday, and it was widely assumed that the government would not break any news until after the festivities. On Friday, indications mounted that the country was preparing for a funeral.
Photographs posted Friday by the respected Central Asian news website Fergana.ru showed what appeared to be undertakers in Karimov’s hometown of Samarkand working on a cemetery plot in the graveyard where Karimov’s family is buried.
The Samarkand airport announced it would be closed to all flights except specially approved aircraft on Saturday, according to the website of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Uzbek opposition blogger Nadezhda Atayeva said on Friday that Uzbek authorities appeared to be cracking down on communication channels. Speaking from western France, she said an opposition contact told her via Skype that government officials had been told to turn off their phones and Internet speeds had slowed sharply.
As he spoke, she said, the signal went dead.
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscw and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.