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Uzbekistan: What Really Happened On Bloody Friday?

  • Daniel Kimmage

http://gdb.rferl.org/1B62A617-EE07-42B6-8E3D-EABCE532F719_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/1B62A617-EE07-42B6-8E3D-EABCE532F719_mw800_mh600.jpg Bodies of protesters in Andijon on 14 May The horrific bloodshed that occurred in Uzbekistan on 13 May breaks down, on closer examination, into two interconnected events that raise two separate issues. The first was an attack by armed men on a military garrison and prison, with the subsequent liberation of prisoners and seizure of the regional-administrative building in Andijon. The second was the use of deadly force against demonstrators who gathered on the city's central square near the occupied regional-administration building. President Islam Karimov and his government have presented official explanations for both events. But independent reports paint a somewhat different picture of the first event, and a radically different picture of the second. [For more on these events, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan --> /specials/uzbek_unrest/ ]

1. The Assault

At a news conference in Tashkent on 14 May, President Karimov provided a detailed account of the assault by armed men on the night of 12 May and morning of 13 May first on a police unit, then on a military garrison, and finally on a prison. After this, they seized the regional administration building and made unsuccessful attempts to storm the regional offices of the National Security Service and Interior Ministry. Karimov focused on losses among security personnel and stressed that the attackers were Islamic extremists from an offshoot of the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. He also stated that phone intercepts showed that the militants consulted with "masters" in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Independent accounts of this first event differed from the version presented by Karimov less in the factual details of the nighttime assaults than in the motivation imputed to the armed attackers. In a clear reference to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Karimov described the attackers' goal as "setting up a caliphate in Uzbekistan...which will allegedly include Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and all other countries," Uzbek Television reported. While independent reports did not dispute the attackers' decision to resort to violence, they did not uncover any specific statements indicating sympathy with Hizb ut-Tahrir's aim of establishing a caliphate ruled by Islamic law, nor did they suggest a more general Islamist context for the violent action.

Sharipjon Shakirov, who had served a four-year prison term for involvement in what the government describes as the Akramiya Islamist group (see below), was one of the men who occupied the regional-administrative building in Andijon. In telephone communications from the building, he told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 13 May that "repression and slander" drove him and others to violent action. He added, "We do not have any connection with those groups [banned Islamic groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir]." He continued: "We have only one demand. [The authorities] should release those people who were imprisoned based on slander, including Akram Yuldoshev." On his own time in prison, Shakirov commented: "We want all those imprisoned on false charges to be released because there are many political prisoners in Uzbekistan. I know this because I served a prison term myself." RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported that Shakirov was among those killed later on 13 May.

Akram Yuldoshev, whose name serves to denote the "Akramiya" group, is currently serving a 17-year prison sentence on terrorism charges. In February, 23 businessmen from Andijon went on trial on charges of involvement in Akramiya. The armed men who began the violence in Andijon on the night of 12 May were apparently their supporters. At issue in the cases of Yuldoshev, the above-mentioned Shakirov, the 23 businessmen, and their supporters is the credibility of the Uzbek government's claims, as represented in criminal convictions and charges, that they were religious extremists with links to the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses the creation of a caliphate throughout Central Asia and the implementation of Islamic law, although it eschews violence (and has specifically denied any involvement in the events in Andijon). For if these official claims are to be believed, the role of religious extremists in starting the violence would seem indisputable.

The problem is that the Uzbek government's record on this score is anything but encouraging. The U.S. State Department's 2004 report on human rights in Uzbekistan, published on the agency's website (http://www.state.gov) on 28 February, details numerous instances of rights violations, many of them involving individuals accused of Hizb ut-Tahrir involvement. The report states that "authorities treated individuals suspected of extreme Islamist sympathies, particularly alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, more harshly than ordinary criminals, and there were credible reports that investigators subjected persons suspected of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir to particularly severe interrogation in pretrial detention, in many cases resorting to torture."

The report also notes, "Local human rights activists reported that police and security-service officers, acting under pressure to break up Hizb ut-Tahrir cells, frequently detained family members and close associates of suspected members, even if there was no direct evidence of their involvement. Authorities made little distinction between actual members and those with marginal affiliation with the group, often persons who had attended Koranic study sessions with the group." Addressing the issue of fair trials, the report states: "Defendants often claimed that the confessions on which the prosecution based its cases were extracted by torture. In many cases, particularly involving suspected members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the prosecution failed to produce confessions and relied solely on witness testimony, which was reportedly often coerced. Typical sentences for male members of Hizb ut-Tahrir ranged from seven to 12 years' imprisonment."

Against this backdrop, Shakirov's statement about "those imprisoned on false charges" gains weight, as does the bitter complaint by Yuldoshev's wife, quoted by Forum 18 on 14 February: "They're not content that my innocent husband is locked up in prison, but are trying to make out of him some kind of bin Laden." The same holds for Forum 18's report that "local people Forum 18 has spoken to reject Uzbek government and foreign press allegations that Akramiya was set up by former Hizb ut-Tahrir members, dissatisfied by the organization's professed rejection of violence, as a means to achieve the aim of an Islamic caliphate."

The preceding does not mean that the participants in the initial violence -- the attack on the military garrison and prison; the seizure of the regional-administration building -- were or were not extremists. What it means is that there are ample grounds to doubt Uzbek official claims of extremist involvement in the absence of hard evidence to back up those claims. Thus far, none of the independent reports of events in Andijon on 12-13 May indicates that the armed men on the antigovernment side employed extremist rhetoric or symbolism. An individual identified as a Western journalist who was in Andijon on 13 May told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR): "This rebellion has nothing to do with religion. I did not hear cries of Allahu Akbar, and none of the rebels inside the regional-administration building mentioned anything about an Islamic state."

Contrasting evidence may come to light, but for now, the most that can be said is that the armed men committed violent acts. Independent reports, such as the BBC's account of the initial violence, support that much of the official version; they do not, however, provide any corroborating evidence for the official claim that the attackers were religious extremists.

2. The Massacre

The second issue is -- an important point -- not directly related to the first: it involves the use of deadly force against unarmed civilians. On this point, the official version put forward by President Karimov directly contradicts the reports of independent journalists on the scene as well as virtually all recorded eyewitness accounts.

In his news conference on 14 May, Karimov stressed that after talks with the rebels broke down, "they broke into three groups, left the [regional-administration] building and began running away in three directions. A chase began." On the death toll, he said: "A total of more than 10 people, including the military, police, and innocent people, were killed. There are far more killed on their side" -- the rebel side, presumably -- "than the other." Karimov denied that he or anyone else had given an order to shoot. He told journalists, "I know that you want to know who gave the order to shoot," Reuters reported. "No one gave such an order." The implication is that rebels shot first and were responsible for civilian deaths.

Independent accounts paint an entirely different picture. After the rebels seized the regional-administration building, a large demonstration ensued in the central square of Andijon. (A photograph of the crowd, showing many women and children, can be found here: http://www.newsteam.ru/reports/index.html?1,562,8.) Correspondents for Reuters and IWPR were on the scene. Reuters reported, "Troops then opened fire on a square in [Andijon] where protesters had massed and stormed the [occupied regional-administration] building." IWPR reported: "The eight-wheeled armored personnel carriers, APCs, appeared out of nowhere, moving through the streets at speed, past the people on the outer fringes of the rally. The first column of vehicles thundered past without taking any aggressive action. But a second column arriving five minutes later suddenly opened up on the crowds, firing off round after round without even slowing down to take aim."

Eyewitness accounts recorded by IWPR, Reuters, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, "Kommersant-Daily," fergana.ru, "The New York Times," and other news organizations also indicated the troops fired indiscriminately at unarmed demonstrators. Moreover, some accounts indicated that when troops directed their fire, they targeted the wounded. A woman identified as Muqaddas told IWPR: "[Military servicemen] got drunk, and in this condition they shot and killed the wounded. In my presence, they shot down a woman with two small children." A man identified as a 31-year-old cobbler told Reuters, "I saw soldiers killing several wounded with single shots to the head after asking 'are there any wounded around?'"

The death toll from the events of 13 May remains unclear. Several eyewitness accounts stated that 500 were killed in Andijon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005). The unregistered Uzbek opposition party Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) has sent representatives door-to-door in Andijon and Pakhtaobod, a nearby town where unconfirmed reports speak of a brutally suppressed uprising after the violence in Andijon, to collect the names of the dead, "Izvestiya" reported on 17 May. At present, the list contains 745 names, 542 from Andijon and 203 from Pakhtaobod.



Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.


See also:

Bloody Friday In The Ferghana Valley

Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs

Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon

Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions

Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'
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