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Uzbekistan: One Witness's Testimony Forces Courtroom Collision

  • Daniel Kimmage --> (epa) Until 14 October, the Uzbek government had every reason to consider the trial of 15 alleged organizers of the 12-13 May violence in Andijon a ringing domestic success. The accused immediately pleaded guilty to charges carrying the death penalty, a parade of witnesses confirmed official allegations that religious extremists bore responsibility for the bloodshed, and no one suggested that government forces acted improperly when they quelled the unrest.

But on 14 October, witness Mahbuba Zokirova painted a radically different picture, testifying that soldiers had shot unarmed demonstrators. Her account contradicted the official version of events and buttressed reports by international organizations citing eyewitness testimony that government forces massacred civilians in Andijon on 13 May. RFE/RL has provided a transcript of Zokirova's testimony. The following excerpts convey both the tenor of her remarks and the most explosive charges they contain.

Zokirova's Testimony

Zokirova: My name is Mahbuba Zokirova, daughter of Ghofirjon. I was born in 1972 in the city of Andijon.

Judge: Do you have an education?

Zokirova: I finished the eighth grade.

Judge: Are you employed?

Zokirova: I've been employed in the past.

Judge: What is your place of residence?

Zokirova: The village of Hakan.

Judge: Andijon Province, village of Hakan, 304 Qumquma Street -- is that correct?

Zokirova: Qum Street.

Judge: House 304?

Zokirova: Yes.

Judge: Zokirova, you've been called as a witness. You have to give accurate testimony on the things you witnessed. You will be held accountable for perjury. I've informed you of this. Please sign the list. (Long pause.) Without hurrying, please tell us about the things and events you have seen.

Zokirova: My daughter and I both have our birthdays on 12 May. Every year, we celebrate our birthday and go out with the kids' dad. Since he was at work, he couldn't come out. Later, I took my kids out to the city. There was a crowd in front of Navoiy Park in the city. There were a lot of people. I went over to find out what was going on. When I went over, there were a lot of women there like me with their kids. There were also one or two armed men there. It never occurred to me that they might be terrorists. There weren't a lot of weapons, so they didn't grab my attention. I don't know, I thought they might be guards. We stood there.

Everyone was out and about and they were talking a lot. To be more precise, there were handicapped people, women. Everyone was talking about the events that had happened. They said that [President Islam] Karimov was on his way. They said he was really coming. They brought out an older man, and they told him some things. I don't remember exactly what. After that a helicopter came. It flew low. It went over our heads twice. We thought that this was really Karimov. They were saying, "Now our president has really come to Andijon." We believed it.

Later, Karimov hadn't arrived and I was at the edge of the crowd. Soldiers in a vehicle at the edge of the road opened fire. Someone dropped to the ground next to me. A little girl said, "I've been shot in the leg." Then I said (and I was lying down), "Have you really been shot?" She said, "No, it didn't hit my leg. It hit the heel of my shoe." I looked and there was a bullet hole. I said, "Yes, it's a bullet hole." I was scared. I have four little kids. They were all there. I was afraid for my kids, not for myself. I still can't believe they were shooting at the people. After this, the armed people and men said, "Come through. Let the women inside. Don't let them shoot them. Have the men shield them." There weren't a lot of armed men. Most of the men were unarmed. Then the women went to the inside and the guys [men] stayed at the edge. A lot of them died. That's what it was like. At one point, I don't know, three or four, maybe five or 10 people who had spoken a lot said, "We'll put them in front. If we put the officials [in front], they won’t shoot the people. How can they shoot their own guys? Don't be afraid." I think they put them in front, but me and my kids were in the crowd and I didn't see. When they put them in front, we moved a bit. There was terrible shooting.

Words can't describe it. It's wasn’t like that even during the war. It was horrible, bloody. When we were lying down, blood was flowing on the ground where we were lying. I was so scared that I didn't know what was going on. We said, "They shot their own guys. What's going to happen to us now?" Everyone ran in all directions to save their lives. There were about 10,000 people there and they went running away. Most of the people there fled. They got killed. In that situation, the crowd turned, wondering where to run and how to save themselves. They turned down this one street to get away from the shooting. My kid was in the crowd in the middle of the shooting. A guy who picked him up was shot. My 3-year-old and my 7- or 8-month-old were with me. But the guy who picked up my other kid was either shot or fell down on the ground. My kid stayed there. I took my kid and went ahead. "Oh, my child!" I said. People were dying. Shots were ringing out. A child went running and took my kid. My kids were crying. They were all terrified. When I remember it now, I'm scared. (Lowers her voice.) I'm not afraid of you. When I remember those events, I get scared.

Fleeing The Violence

After the violence in Andijon, Zokirova fled to the border with Kyrgyzstan. She described her experiences there in her subsequent testimony:

Zokirova: When we reached the town of Teshiktosh on the border, no one had any weapons. There were women, old women, pregnant women, and children. They took headscarves and made a white flag. The men said, "They won't shoot. We'll send you, the women, across [the border]. If they shoot anyone, they'll shoot us." When we went, they didn't pay any attention to the white flag. The worst part is, even Hitler didn't shoot people who raised the white flag. They fired. I saw it with my own eyes. I swear on my four children -- they fired.

Zokirova said that one of the fleeing refugees saved her child and paid with his life:

Zokirova: Gunshots were ringing out. When the bullets hit the pavement, they burst into flame. It was awful. My child was crying. Even as my child was walking, I was afraid to bring him out from under fire. I was so scared I couldn't move. When I cried out to my child, a short kid ran out, grabbed my child, and held him tight. But the kid was shot in the head and killed. I'm telling the truth for him.

After crossing into Kyrgyzstan, Zokirova and her children found themselves in a refugee camp. She told the court about the conditions there and the circumstances of her return to Uzbekistan.

Zokirova: There was sun. It was stifling. No place was cool. My children are frail, so they quickly got sick. I ended up in the hospital again. The mayor, district governor, neighborhood committee, my boss, and my older brother came to the hospital. "Get up and go," they said. "Why did you run away?" I said, "You didn't see what happened. I saw it. How can I go back to the place where they shot at my children? My trust is gone." They said, "We're not going to touch the women and children. Go back home." I said, "No, I don't believe it. I believe what I saw with my own eyes. How can I go back to where they shot at me? I'm not going to go." They came back, and on the evening of the next day they dragged me, they forced me.

Now I have a chance to talk, so I'm going to speak. The thing is that I'm afraid to live here because now I've said things no one has talked about. I watched TV and I wondered, "Why are they lying? Why aren't they telling the truth? Why aren't they telling the truth about the people who opened fire on children, the ones who fired at the people?"

Near the end of Zokirova's testimony, the judge asked her to be as specific as possible about the individuals she saw doing the shooting. Her response, and a brief exchange with the judge, brought her testimony to a close.

Zokirova: I saw it exactly. I saw it twice. In the vehicle at the side of the road men in soldiers' uniforms wearing helmets did some terrible shooting. After that, when the people got to Teshiktosh, under the trees, guys wearing the same kind of helmets fired from the windows of houses. I didn't see their lower half, but the helmets were visible. They were shooting. I saw them shooting.

Judge: Does the defense have any questions? The accused?

Zokirova: Are you going to put me in jail now?

Judge: No, no one is going to put you in jail.

Zokirova: I've told the truth. There's nothing in it for me. I'm not getting anything from anyone. My conscience is clean...

Coverage Of Her Testimony...

Zokirova's testimony caused a stir in Western media, which treated her allegations that government forces fired on unarmed demonstrators as an unexpectedly dissonant note in what has been widely viewed as a scripted trial with a predetermined outcome. Uzbek officials and government-controlled media also responded, arguing both that Zokirova's discordant testimony pulled the rug out from under charges of a scripted show trial and that Zokirova's ties to the alleged extremists the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office has blamed for the violence in Andijon undermined her credibility as a witness.

Speaking on 17 October, Supreme Court spokesman Aziz Obidov said that Zokirova's testimony put paid to charges of a biased trial, Interfax reported. He stated: "The testimony of Mahbuba Zokirova indicates that a spectrum of opinions is being gathered. This fact again gives the lie to assertions by many of our opponents that this trial is proceeding in accordance with a scenario drawn up in advance." Obidov concluded: "It's not surprising that some witnesses are trying to justify the defendants. Ultimately, only the court will assess all these accounts and pass a verdict."

...Including Attacks On Her Credibility

Some newspaper coverage focused on Zokirova's person. The nationwide daily "Xalq Sozi" wrote on 18 October that Zokirova's testimony "unintentionally revealed...that her mind was completely poisoned by the teachings of Akramiya [the alleged extremist group that Uzbek authorities accuse of masterminding the violence]." "Ozbekiston Ovozi" quoted Zokirova's mother-in-law, who reportedly said, "[Zokirova] does not understand the right path. I have heard what she said in court. I do not agree with her remarks."

Other newspapers attacked the witness's credibility. "Ishonch" wrote, "Covering up crimes committed by those behind the tragic events...Zokirova described them as innocent people. In doing so, she tried to mislead the court." Official news agency UzA raised the prospect of perjury, citing a discrepancy in the number of relatives Zokirova said are currently residing in Romania. UzA commented, "Zokirova, who was warned about criminal liability...for knowingly providing false testimony and refusing to testify, consciously gave incorrect information about her relatives in Romania."

Despite these insinuations of looming criminal liability for her testimony, Zokirova told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in a subsequent interview that she had not suffered any repercussions in the wake of her court appearance. Queried about possible harassment, she said, "No, nobody said a bad word to me. They were guarding me, even praying for me. I haven't heard any bad words." RFE/RL also asked Zokirova about her alleged ties to Akramiya members.

RFE/RL: After your testimony, some government-controlled newspapers accused you of being a close relative to Akramiya members, being specially prepared by them, started hinting that you might have some mental problems and etc. How would you comment on these accusations?

Zokirova: (silence...) Everybody says what they want. How should I know? (Sighs.) People who know me personally know who I am.

RFE/RL: What would you say about being a close relative of Akramists?

Zokirova: There is no Akramiya, it's just a label. They are obedient Muslims. In my testimony, I couldn't say that, I was scared....

Given the guilty pleas the accused have already entered, and the Uzbek government's demonstrated commitment to its version of events, it is virtually inconceivable that Zokirova's testimony will affect the outcome of the trial. It is equally unlikely that critical observers will change their view of the trial under way in Uzbekistan's Supreme Court on the basis of this single incident. What Zokirova's court appearance, and the reactions it evoked, underscored was the unbridgeable gap between what the Uzbek government says took place in Andijon on 13 May -- a judicious security response to a coup attempt by violent religious extremists -- and what much of the international community believes occurred -- a government-perpetrated massacre to smash an uprising and subsequent demonstration fueled by social, economic, and political frustrations.

This bitter dispute over Andijon has raged since the events occurred. Zokirova's testimony threw it into sharp relief because the two competing leitmotifs -- terrorism and massacre -- collided for the first time in an official setting inside Uzbekistan. Mahbuba Zokirova reminded everyone that the court proceedings in Tashkent, in which the defendants admitted their guilt on the very first day, are not an adversarial trial with two sides offering competing truths, but rather a struggle for control over the public narrative of the violence in Andijon. And the real cause of the interest in Zokirova's testimony, both inside and outside of Uzbekistan, is the knowledge that final judgment on the public narrative of Andijon -- the shared sense of "what really happened" that informs popular consciousness -- belongs not to foreign observers, nor to government officials, but to a potential actor that has yet to render its verdict: the people of Uzbekistan.