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Women accuse Uzbekistan of mass sterilization

GULISTAN, Uzbekistan - Saodat Rakhimbayeva says she wishes she had died with her newborn baby.

The housewife, 24, had a cesarean section in March and gave birth to Ibrohim, a premature boy who died three days later.

Then came a further devastating blow: She learned that the surgeon had removed part of her uterus during the operation, making her sterile. The doctor told her the hysterectomy was necessary to remove a potentially cancerous cyst, while she believes he sterilized her as part of a state campaign to reduce birthrates.

"He never asked for my approval, never ran any checks, just mutilated me," Rakhimbayeva said through tears. "I should have just died with Ibrohim."

According to rights groups, victims and health officials, Rakhimbayeva is one of hundreds of Uzbek women surgically sterilized without their knowledge or consent in a program designed to prevent overpopulation from fueling unrest.

Human rights advocates and doctors say autocratic President Islam Karimov this year ramped up a sterilization campaign he initiated in the 1990s. In a decree issued in February, the Health Ministry ordered all medical facilities to "strengthen control over the medical examination of women of childbearing age."

The decree also said that "surgical contraception should be provided free of charge" to women who volunteer.

It did not specifically mandate sterilizations, but critics allege that doctors have come under pressure from the government to perform them: "The order comes from the very top," said Khaitboy Yakubov, head of the Najot human rights group.

Uzbek authorities ignored numerous requests by The Associated Press to comment.

This Central Asian nation of 27 million is the size of California or Iraq, and population density in areas such as Ferghana Valley is among the world's highest.

Rights groups say the government is dealing with poverty, unemployment and severe economic and environmental problems that have triggered an exodus of Uzbek labor migrants to Russia and other countries.

Heightening the government's fears is the specter of legions of jobless men in predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan succumbing to Islamic radical groups.

The surgeon in Rakhimbayeva's case refused to comment.

Health workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity also because they feared persecution, said the authorities are especially eager to sterilize women with HIV, tuberculosis or a drug addiction. Instruments often are not sterilized properly and can infect other women, they said.

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