By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - A planned visit by Uzbek President Islam Karimov next week to the Czech Republic has sparked an outcry among human rights groups critical of his authoritarian rule who say he should be shunned, not courted.
However, Czech President Milos Zeman shrugged off their complaints as "hypocritical" and said he was merely renewing a decade-old invitation to the Uzbek leader to visit Prague.
Karimov, in power since 1991, keeps a tight grip over his largely Muslim central Asian nation of 30 million people. Frosty relations with the West worsened further after he used force to suppress protests in the eastern town of Andizhan in 2005.
"As the leader of one of the most repressive governments in the world, President Karimov is not someone we would expect to be invited for such meetings," said an international group of more than 30 human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, in a letter to Zeman.
"In fact, he is rightly shunned by most Western leaders, particularly after the Andizhan massacre of 2005, in which his security forces shot into crowds of mostly peaceful protesters in that city, killing hundreds."
The U.N. torture watchdog said last November that torture was rife in prisons and police stations in Uzbekistan and that activists were routinely mistreated in a crackdown on dissent.
However, Uzbekistan is a transit point for supplying U.S.-led military operations in neighboring Afghanistan and there has been some thaw in relations with the West as NATO prepares to draw down its troops from there.
Karimov visited Brussels in 2011 at NATO's invitation, where he also met European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, Human Rights Watch said. But bilateral visits to Western nations by the Uzbek leader are rare, it added.
Zeman rejected the NGOs' criticism, saying he was merely heeding an invitation to Karimov extended by his predecessor Vaclav Klaus back in 2004 - before the Andizhan shootings - and he denied that the Uzbek president was internationally isolated.
"President Karimov recently held talks with high representatives of the European Commission in Brussels. I did not notice you protest against that," Zeman said in his reply to the human rights groups.
"I wish you to be better informed and less hypocritical."
Concern for human rights was a key feature of Czech foreign policy under its first president Vaclav Havel, a former anti-communist dissident who came to power after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution". That focus became less pronounced under his successor Klaus.
The Czech president does not have extensive day-to-day powers under the constitution, but Zeman has tried to push the limits of his influence since being elected last year in the country's first direct presidential election.
Unlike many Western leaders, Zeman attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi last week, ignoring European and U.S. criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's human rights record.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)