Massacre in Uzbekistan
by Jim Lobe
month's violence in Andijan, Uzbekistan, amounted to a "massacre"
by government forces against mostly unarmed civilians, according
to a new report
released here Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
report, which declined to estimate the total number of dead, rejected
charges by the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov
that radical Islamists bent on overthrowing the regime were behind
the events of May 13-14.
Uzbek authorities are trying to whitewash this massacre," said
Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director. "Our investigation
is a first step toward setting the record straight. But only a full-fledged
international investigation, with access to official records, can
give a true picture of the tragic events in Andijan."
Karimov government has so far rejected calls by the European Union,
the United States, and other international groups for such an investigation.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, disclosed Tuesday
that Tashkent last week denied his own human rights representative
a visa to enter Uzbekistan to go to Andijan and try to persuade
the regime to accept an international inquiry.
on more than 50 eyewitness interviews conducted in Andijan and in
neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the HRW report, entitled "Bullets Were
Falling Like Rain," will likely add to an ongoing debate in
Washington over the future of U.S. relations with Uzbekistan, which,
since 2001, has been considered a key ally in the "war on terror."
influential Republicans have recently called on the George W. Bush
administration to reassess its ties with Tashkent.
the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York
and the Pentagon, Karimov permitted Washington the use of its Karshi-Khanabad
air base, which proved particularly valuable during and after the
U.S. campaign to oust the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.
addition, the U.S. has "rendered" an unknown number of
terrorist suspects to Uzbekistan for interrogation despite the security
forces' notorious reputation for routinely using torture on suspected
dissidents and Islamists.
forces still use the base in exchange for increased military and
security assistance to the regime, which until Andijan had been
considered a pillar of stability in often-tumultuous Central Asia.
between the two governments on a long-term, formal agreement on
U.S. use of the base have been going on for several months. In its
report, HRW urged Washington to suspend the talks until Tashkent
agrees to cooperate with an international inquiry into the Andijan
killings and to sever military ties if it doesn't.
to the new report, the violence in Andijan, a city in the densely
populated Fergana Valley where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan
all converge, began around midnight on May 12 when 50 to 100 friends
and family members of 34 businessmen who were being tried for "religious
fundamentalism" raided a military barracks and the jail where
they were being held, freeing them and scores of other prisoners
and seizing weapons.
following morning, thousands of people converged in the city's Bobor
Square in a rare but spontaneous anti-government protest that grew
steadily as the day went on.
to later government accounts, demonstrators voiced their anger about
growing poverty and government repression, according to witnesses
interviewed by HRW. The report says that "HRW found no evidence
that any of the speakers at the protest promoted an Islamist agenda."
then, the original attackers had taken over the main government
building and were holding police and government officials hostage.
"The attackers committed serious crimes," Roth stressed
Tuesday. "Of course, the government had the right and duty
to stop them. But that doesn't justify shooting unarmed people on
a mass scale."
however, is precisely what happened, according to the 65-page report.
Snipers and government troops on armored personnel carriers and
military trucks began firing indiscriminately into a crowd "in
which the overwhelming majority of people numbering in the
thousands were unarmed."
sealing off the square, they continued firing from various directions,
even as the protesters tried to flee the area.
group of [300 to 400] fleeing protesters was literally mowed down
by government gunfire," according to the report, which noted
that the "presence of gunmen in the crowd, and even the possibility
that they may have fired at or returned from the government forces,
cannot possibly justify this wanton slaughter."
government itself has claimed that the death toll came to 173 people
mostly police and civilians killed by the original attackers,
as well as the attackers themselves but local human rights
groups and individuals who subsequently visited morgues or grave
sites report a much higher death toll of around 750.
the event's aftermath, according to the report, Uzbek authorities
forced the few journalists who were present to leave the city and
confiscated their materials. In addition, local security officials
explicitly warned survivors not to talk to anyone about what had
the government has launched a criminal investigation into the events
in Andijan, indications to date suggest it will not include an inquiry
into the use of lethal force by government forces, according to
HRW. The group also said that a commission of inquiry mandated by
the Uzbek parliament is unlikely to conduct a thorough investigation
of the performance of the security forces.
findings are certain to fuel the debate here over the future of
U.S.-Uzbek relations. Even before the Andijan events, the Bush administration
was itself divided between the Pentagon, which considers the Karshi-Khanabad
air base a particularly valuable piece of real estate vis-à-vis
not only Afghanistan, but Russia and China as well, and the State
year, the State Department cut $18 million in military and security
assistance due to Karimov's failure to follow through on promised
human rights and political reforms. The move was followed, however,
by the Pentagon's announcement that it was providing the government
$21 million in supplemental assistance, ostensibly to help it dispose
of Soviet-era biological weapons.
the Pentagon remains the dominant player in U.S.-Uzbek relations,
pressure for a reassessment, even among Republicans, is building.
Late last month, a visiting delegation of three Republican senators,
including John McCain, called for an international inquiry into
the group's request for a meeting with top Tashkent officials was
rejected at the same time that the government refused to renew the
visas of Washington's 54 Peace Corps volunteers.
addition, the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which has
in the past defended Karimov as a bulwark against the spread of
radical Islam, has moved against him in Andijan's wake.
cannot turn a blind eye to massacres in a country where U.S. troops
are based and that receives U.S. assistance," wrote editor
William Kristol and contributor Stephen Schwartz, who, until then,
was Karimov's foremost U.S. apologist.
the prevailing view for now was best expressed earlier this week
by Ariel Cohen, a Central Asia expert at the right-wing Heritage
Foundation. "At present
U.S. officials probably can't
abandon Karimov because of the credibility of the Islamic radical
threat," he wrote on Eurasianet.
if Karimov's administration collapses, there is no force outside
of Islamic radicals that could stand a chance of filling the power
Lobe [send him mail]
is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service