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Central Asia Report: August 17, 2005

17 August 2005, Volume 5, Number 31

WEEK AT A GLANCE (8-14 August). Kazakhstan battled bird flu, as veterinarians confirmed the presence in Pavlodar Province of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza that has proved dangerous to humans. With bird flu reported in four provinces, the Agriculture Ministry banned the sale of live poultry and eggs in affected areas and implemented quarantines to contain the outbreaks. Kazakhstan's opposition faced problems of its own, as embezzlement and tax-evasion charges were filed against businessman Bolat Abilov, often cited as a likely sponsor of opposition activities. Elsewhere, First Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, who is also President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, was appointed Kazakhstan's special representative for cooperation with the OSCE. For his part, the president removed Almaty Mayor Shalbai Kulmakhanov and appointed him head of the Emergency Situations Ministry. Nazarbaev also relieved Serik Umbetov as agriculture minister and appointed him mayor of Almaty.

Newly elected Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev took the oath of office in Bishkek on 14 August, informing a crowd of 10,000 in his inaugural address that he will safeguard Kyrgyzstan's geopolitical independence, work to revive the moribund economy, and fight regionalism. Fifteen Uzbek citizens detained in Osh remained in limbo, with UN officials examining their cases while reports named Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands as having offered to accept the detainees. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz rights activists alleged that up to 1,000 Uzbeks may now be living in Kyrgyzstan as unregistered refugees after fleeing Uzbekistan in the wake of bloodshed in Andijon on 12-13 May.

The trial of Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the head of Tajikistan's Democratic Party, continued in the country's Supreme Court, with Iskandarov telling the court that he confessed under duress to participating in acts of violence. Iskandarov also demanded an inquiry into the circumstances of his mysterious transfer from Russia to Tajikistan in April, which he described as an abduction. In another courtroom in Dushanbe, nine members of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir received prison terms ranging from three to 13 years. Three independent Tajik weeklies that have had strained relations with the authorities -- "Ruzi Nav," "Odamu Olam," and "Adolat" -- reappeared in print after publication hiatuses of varying lengths. And President Imomali Rakhmonov visited Thailand, where he discussed bilateral economic cooperation with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov continued a string of recent high-profile sackings, this time canning Saparmamed Valiev from his ministerial post as head of Turkmenneft, the state oil company. Accused by the president of corruption, Valiev asked for forgiveness, only to hear in response from Niyazov: "I won't forgive you anything. Go and work as a manual laborer."

In Uzbekistan, Igor Rotar, a Russian journalist who is a correspondent for Norway-based religious-freedom organization Forum 18 and a contributor to the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation, ran into trouble when he arrived in Tashkent. Uzbek authorities detained him and, as Rotar explained in a subsequent interview, attempted to browbeat him into buying a ticket out of the country. The journalist, who has extensively covered issues of religious freedom in Uzbekistan, stood his ground, and was officially deported two days after arriving. He linked his deportation, which drew widespread condemnation from media watchdog groups, with the general crackdown on media in Uzbekistan in the wake of violence in Andijon on 12-13 May.

CLIMATE OF FEAR GRIPS ANDIJON. The outside world has received few accounts of life in Andijon since 12-13 May. In a series of reports broadcast on 10-12 August, RFE/RL provided a rare glimpse of the fear lurking behind the superficial normalcy that has settled over the city since the bloody events of May. Because of the fear of government reprisals, RFE/RL has concealed the identities of the people with whom it spoke.

"People are very afraid after the events on and before 13 May," one Andijon resident told RFE/RL. "Because many people were imprisoned after these events, no one can tell anyone else what they really think about government policies or the bad things that are happening. People are afraid of the government and afraid of their neighbors. The people who witnessed these events [on 13 May] were videotaped. Their houses have been searched and they've been called in for questioning. The soldiers wear masks over their faces. They treat even the women roughly."

A local woman confirmed that the fear has arisen in a climate of pervasive surveillance. "People are afraid to talk," she said. "While I was riding a bus..., a woman started talking about the Andijon events. She talked about how there were brains splattered on the ground in front of the administration building and how they paid people 1,000 soms [$1] an hour to clean them up. The woman got off when she reached her house. A young guy got off after her. She didn't make it 10 meters before he handcuffed her and then they led her off somewhere."

Another woman described a similar incident. "Now there are more people in civilian clothes listening in on what people are saying," she said. "Recently, a woman was drinking carbonated water at Yangibozor [New Market] with a young child. She was telling the water vendor that the government organized the disturbances. A guy who was standing off to the side came up to the woman and pulled the woman by the hand. She started screaming. The young man pulled out a tape recorder and played back a recording of everything she'd been saying to the vendor. Then he took her away. Everyone watched."

A third woman in Andijon told RFE/RL that despite the massive security presence, people refuse to surrender their private thoughts. "There are special procedures in place in Andijon, in Boghishamol, around the prison, in the Soy neighborhood, and in front of the administration building," she said. "There are always armed soldiers wandering around there. But no matter how much the soldiers roam around, no matter how hard they try to strike fear and terror into the population, people can't erase their heartfelt desires."

The same woman described the security forces' brutality, manifested in a random killing. "[A youth] vanished at that time [on 13 May]," she said. "He didn't go to the war [the demonstration], but he must have been scared. He only turned up four days later. Police officers brought him to Andijon. They killed him and brought him in four days later.... Everyone in the neighborhood saw them bring him."

Andijon residents told RFE/RL that torture is common, although the torturers make efforts to cover their tracks. "There's a videotape of the people who took part in the demonstration," one local said. "If the people they arrest are on the videotape, they bring them down to a cellar and beat them brutally. Even the ones who aren't on the tape get beaten. Afterward, they make them sign a statement saying that they didn't harm them before they let them go."

Another woman recounted one case of torture that ended in death of a teenager. "He went out to watch on [13 May] and got shot in the shoulder," she said. "They brought the child to a clinic. After he'd been lying there for three days, they brought him to the police. Despite his wound, they stuck him in a filthy room for three days. There were so many people there wasn't enough room to sit or lie down. They really made this poor kid suffer. Then they gave him an injection and sent him home. After that they called him in for interrogation every day. That shot they gave him must have been a lethal injection, since he died after about a month and a half. The wound never healed and his bones crumbled. The day before he died, he told how he'd been tortured. Even though it's shameful, I'll say it: They sodomized him with a piece of metal and a billy club. While the child was in the hospital, he'd told people that the soldiers shot him. When they tortured him, they said it was so that he wouldn't tell anyone else."

With information scarce, the slightest events give rise to rumors. On 6 August, soldiers and police blocked off Andijon's main street, where the administration building is located. "After Akram Yuldoshev [the purported leader of the Akramiya extremist movement, accused by the Uzbek authorities of fomenting the violence in Andijon on 12-13 May] made a statement on Uzbek television, some people called up official offices and made threats," one local said, explaining the police cordon. "In order to increase security, they called military vehicles and security forces out into the streets."

But an elderly man had a different explanation. "Apparently, they were shooting a film about military actions in the Soy neighborhood," he said. "Fine, let them show the soldiers. But they should also show how the soldiers and tanks shot at people."

Security forces have stepped up arrests in the wake of violence in Andijon on 12-13 May. A woman in a village near Andijon told RFE/RL: "After those events, they said on television that anyone who found weapons and brought them in would get a 100,000-som [$100] reward. One of my relatives found two weapons. He believed them and brought them in. They arrested him. In fact, he had just found the weapons along the side of the road."

Another person told RFE/RL that once someone is imprisoned, appeals are useless. "They arrested my son and took him away from the house," the local said. "At the police station, he was forced to confess. His wife is at home with three children. Even if I wanted to look after them, I still have children of my own who aren't married yet. You know what the economy's like. Who's going to listen to our appeal? Who's going to defend us? We encounter oppression at every turn. The women are fed up; I mean, the women of those who are in prison. All of the adults know why the economy's so bad. Everyone's smart enough to figure it out. These men who are making life hard for the women, I wonder how they square it with their conscience. We say that our ruler is just, but I can't figure out how that's so. He's only just to those who help him. He hasn't achieved any justice for Muslims. But if people talk about this, they disappear along with their children and grandparents." (Daniel Kimmage, in conjunction with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 16 August)

UZBEK AUTHORITIES INTENSIFY STATE PROPAGANDA ON ANDIJON TRAGEDY. The fight for the hearts and minds of Uzbeks has intensified since the Andijon bloodshed on 13 May. The government has clamped down on independent journalists and led a campaign against foreign media for reports that contradict the official version of the events. State propaganda now seems to be getting the upper hand, with television broadcasts of so-called documentaries about Andijon. One of the films shows Akram Yuldoshev, whom the government accuses of founding the alleged Akramiya Islamist group. In the film, Yuldoshev admits to being behind the May unrest -- despite the fact that he has been in prison since 1999.

The film "Temptation Leading Toward The Abyss" was broadcast on Uzbek state television on 30 July. It shows Yuldoshev asking forgiveness from the Uzbek people and admitting he was behind the Andijon bloodshed, which broke out between police forces and public demonstrators protesting the arrest and trial of 23 local businessmen accused of religious extremism. Authorities say the unrest led to the death of 187 people, including many police officers and government troops. Human rights groups put the number much higher.

"I am the greatest culprit in the past events, because it was I who brought together 20 young men and urged them to take up arms," Yuldoshev says in the televised footage. "During the [13 May] tragedy, I urged my religious brothers to start fighting jihad. I issued a fatwa for this purpose. Even though I knew that weapons were likely to be used and blood was likely to be shed, I issued a fatwa. I am the greatest culprit, I am the greatest criminal, I am the most villainous man, I am to blame for this."

In the documentary, Yuldoshev also appears to implicate another alleged Akramiya member, Qobiljon Parpiev, in the unrest. Parpiev, who was in the Andijon regional administration building on 13 May and held negotiations with Uzbek Interior Minister Zakir Almatov, managed to escape the violence. He fled Uzbekistan and instantly became one of the country's most wanted men. Parpiev spoke to RFE/RL from an undisclosed location.

"I haven't seen the film myself, but I spoke to those who had," Parpiev said. "They and I believe [Yuldoshev] was in a very difficult situation. He was tortured, because he looked very different -- not like he looked before, when some people visited him [in prison]. He looked very thin and exhausted. It was clear that he was tortured."

Another film, "The Flame of Ignorance," was broadcast on 5 August and was devoted to Andijon city prosecutor Ganijon Abdurahimov, who was killed, allegedly by Andijon militants, on 13 May.

Parpiev saw this video but said it was government troops -- not his fellow demonstrators -- who killed Abdurahimov.

"In the previous video, they showed shots that, as they put it, were made by terrorists," Parpiev said. "But if you noticed, they didn't show any shots of demonstrators who were speaking at a microphone set up at the Bobur monument. If they had shown them, people would see what Ganijon said that day. He said he received an order from the government to try the 23 men a year ago. He was shot by a sniper as he said this. Why would we kill him? He was a witness. We needed him. He was the first they killed because of what he said."

Another video, "The Night That Shook the Golden Valley," broadcast on 16 July, accuses the international community of "having geopolitical interests in Central Asia" that have led to "attempts by some major powers to make Central Asia dependent on them" and "bring Uzbekistan under their control."

The international media also come under attack. The video accuses foreign journalists of siding with alleged terrorists, saying: "They tried to justify the criminal group armed with assault rifles, pistols, and Molotov cocktails. They called them peaceful demonstrators, and then turned a blind eye to the aggression and onslaughts by the terrorists."

The state-sanctioned Andijon documentaries are seen as part of a government propaganda campaign aimed at convincing Uzbeks the official version of the events is true. Have they had the desired effect? People in the Uzbek capital Tashkent appeared to have a mixed reaction.

"What can I say about the film? One doesn't know whom to believe," said one Uzbek woman. "Everyone has his or her opinion. If you ask my personal view, for example, I wouldn't say I believed everything 100 percent."

"Yes, I believe it," said another woman. "Finally, the people get a clear picture of what happened. Rumors are disappearing now. They showed how terrorists had used a peaceful population as human shields."

A third woman said: "I saw two documentaries, but didn't get an answer as to why the people went to the demonstration. They didn't tell it openly. They should have explained the reasons of the people's unrest. There is always a reason. But they hid it."

Bahodir Musaev, an independent sociologist from Tashkent, accused Uzbek authorities of adopting Soviet-style brainwashing -- blocking the flow of independent information while intensifying their own propaganda efforts. But Soviet methods are no longer effective, Musaev said. People now understand there is often a vast difference between what authorities say and what is actually happening.

In addition, Musaev said, there are new sources of information, like the Internet, that are difficult to control. That, in turn, dilutes the effect of state propaganda. "I don't think [the propaganda is effective]," he said. "I think no one takes it seriously because very few people watch our television. It became clear several years ago that people didn't trust our mass media. I don't know who [the authorities] want to deceive. Only themselves?!"

Sharof Ubaydullaev, a Tashkent-based independent journalist, agreed and said the recent documentaries might backfire. "It's nothing but a fable, it's a fable to say [Yuldoshev] was able to run everything from behind bars," he said. "Our secret service wants to convince us of this. But don't they understand that we are now even more likely to think of Akram Yuldoshev as a great, and even godlike, figure? I think those who are doing all of this up should think of the possible consequences. For example, the question that may arise is what has [the security service] been doing? Hacking around?"

Both Ubaydullaev and Musaev said Uzbek officials are aware of the limited effect of state propaganda -- but are using every means available to hold on to the power that was seriously challenged in Andijon. (Gulnoza Saidazimova with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondents in Tashkent. Originally published on 11 August)

DAILY LIFE CONTINUES IN THE SHADOW OF ANDIJON. In the nearly three months since Andijon exploded in violence on 12-13 May, Uzbekistan has found itself at the center of a debate couched in the grand terms of great-power politics. Will President Islam Karimov be able to hold his ground? Why exactly did Karimov ask the United States to give up its air base at Karshi-Khanabad? How far will the rapprochement between Uzbekistan and Russia go? Meanwhile, daily life goes on for ordinary Uzbeks. And RFE/RL's Uzbek Service has continued to cover it.

For many Uzbeks, the bazaar remains a key barometer. As RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 29 July, the prices of basic goods have risen. For example, 1 kilogram of beef now sells for 2,800-3,000 soms (1,000 soms is roughly equally to $1), while a kilogram of lamb sells for 3,000-3,500 soms, an increase of 500 soms over last year. (For context, the World Bank defines Uzbekistan as a low-income country, with gross national income per person of $420 in 2003.) The prices of other agricultural products have increased approximately 30 percent over the past year. Queried about the cause of rising prices, a farmer told RFE/RL: "Transportation prices are high for farmers. Fertilizer, fieldwork, equipment, fuel, and seeds are expensive. This is why the produce is getting more expensive."

Despite a presidential decree in February banning unreasonable price hikes for basic services, some of those services have become costlier, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 5 August. The price of gasoline has risen twice, going up five soms in January and five soms in July. One liter now costs 330 soms. Bakhtiyor Muqimov, an official at the O'zneftmahsulot oil and gas company, told RFE/RL: "The price of gasoline hasn't changed at all since last August. But the consumption tax on gasoline went up by five soms in January and in June." The price of electrical energy has also gone up about 20 percent.

How does this affect the lives of ordinary Uzbeks? RFE/RL's Uzbek Service recently reported on the daily life of a 40-year-old woman from Andijon. Her husband is in prison, she works as a teacher, and she has seven children, five of her own and two from her husband's first marriage. The oldest is 17, the youngest four. The woman's salary from the school where she teaches is 15,000 soms a month, and she receives 13,000 soms a month in subsidies for her children. She described her family's efforts to supplement this meager budget of $28 a month:

"I don't teach many hours at the school because I need to look after the kids. The most basic thing for our family is bread. After that it's hot meals. Because of these difficulties, my oldest son was forced to work during the summer vacation. At first, he worked with his friends loading meat in a freezer. He would work from evening until noon the next day for 6,000 soms. After working like this for five or six days he started to cough. When I saw this, I didn't let him go to work anymore. It was costing more to buy medicine than he made working." The woman's son now works as a bricklayer for 2,000-2,500 soms a day.

At one point, the woman tried to augment her earnings by engaging in the petty trade that is the mainstay of many family budgets. Following a friend's advice, she hired an old woman to look after the children and acquired some goods to sell. She recounted: "In the winter, I went to Qorasuv [on the border with Kyrgyzstan] with a friend who does some trading. I brought some goods that I wanted to sell -- children's pants. I bought them for 450 soms and wanted to sell them for 500. Along the way, customs officers took my goods away and confiscated them."

The family fell on hard times. "The 28,000 soms I get each month isn't enough for bread. Each month, bread alone costs 60,000 soms," the woman explained. "I keep us afloat by selling things around the house. We've been living in these circumstances for three years now. Even if my husband were released from jail on an amnesty, would that solve our problems?"

When there simply wasn't enough money, the woman began to buy goods at a nearby store on credit. Her debts now total at least 300,000 soms, money that went to feeding her family. In order to pay the debt, she is now contemplating selling her house and moving in with her mother or mother-in-law. (Daniel Kimmage, in conjunction with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 11 August)