By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Uzbek President Islam Karimov has postponed a visit to Prague after Czech government ministers said they would not meet the leader who has been accused of serious human rights abuses.
A spokesman for Czech President Milos Zeman said on Thursday that the Uzbek delegation had cancelled next week's visit due to scheduling problems which had derailed a planned lunch with new Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
"Given the fact the visit was due to take place during the spring holidays, it was not possible to hold the planned lunch with the prime minister and to secure the presence of cabinet members at the signing of prepared agreements. Five out of six ministers excused themselves," spokesman Jiri Ovcacek said.
He gave no alternative date for the visit by Karimov, who has kept a tight grip over his largely Muslim central Asian nation of 30 million people since 1991.
Karimov has been shunned by most Western leaders for human rights abuses, especially after a bloody crackdown on protests in the town of Andizhan in 2005. Dozens of human rights groups sent Zeman a letter of protest against the visit to Prague.
Zeman shrugged off the complaints as "hypocritical" and said he was merely renewing a decade-old invitation to the Uzbek leader to visit Prague.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry declined to comment and Karimov's office could not immediately be reached for comment.
The U.N. Committee against Torture says political dissenters are routinely mistreated in Uzbekistan where torture is rife in prisons and police stations.
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 there.
Prague had hoped to conclude business deals worth over half a billion euros during Karimov's trip, spokesman Ovcacek said.
Karimov visited Brussels in 2011 at NATO's invitation, where he also met European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso despite criticism from human rights groups. Bilateral visits to Western nations by the Uzbek leader are rare.
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, Vaclav Klaus.
Zeman favors closer ties with Russia and China while Sobotka's centre-left government wants to move back into the EU mainstream after somewhat Eurosceptic predecessors.
Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek has said the European Union should be ready to impose sanctions on Ukraine, which has shunned an EU trade pact in favor of closer ties with Moscow, if authorities persists in using violence against protesters.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)