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Five Years After Andijon Events, Key Questions Remain Unanswered

  • RFE/RL

People pray on May 14, 2005, by the bodies of victims of the government crackdown in Andijon.

People pray on May 14, 2005, by the bodies of victims of the government crackdown in Andijon.

It's been five years since public protests in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon turned bloody.

What is now widely known as the "Andijon massacre" transpired when forces under the harsh regime of President Islam Karimov opened fire on crowds of protesters who had been staging peaceful antigovernment demonstrations in the city for several days.

Karimov's imposition of a virtual blockade on information or outside investigation to this day means little is known about what ignited the violence, or even how many victims there were. RFE/RL looks at some of the key questions that remain unanswered.

What prompted the demonstrations?

Injustice, religion, poverty, and harsh state repression were all part of the volatile mix brewing in the days leading up to the bloodshed of May 13, 2005.

Of these, growing discontent over the economic situation in eastern Uzbekistan is most often cited as the basis for the demonstrations, with the arrest of 23 local business leaders upon which many Andijon residents depended seen as the catalyst. Demonstrators demanded the release of the businessmen, who were being tried for their alleged extremist and separatist activities related to their involvement with "Akramiya," an organization banned by the government as an Islamic group.

Other theories have also been floated as reasons for the demonstrations, including that they were part of a power struggle between Uzbekistan's political clans, or evidence of a fledgling "colored revolution" akin to that seen in Kyrgyzstan just weeks before.

What Is Akramiya?

A group of Andijon refugees demonstrate at the EU building in Brussels.
The Uzbek authorities claim Akramiya was an Islamist organization bent on replacing the government in Tashkent with an Islamic state, but things aren't nearly so cut and dry. The group has also been described as a close-knit business community that collected membership fees, provided discounted goods to members, and was actively involved in local charitable activities.

Members of the Akramiya community have told RFE/RL that they had good relations with the local authorities, even claiming that they had bribed officials as a way to gain favor. It is unclear what might have happened to sour those good relations.

Reports widely cite Akramiya as having been founded in 1992 by then-29-year-old Andijoni math teacher Akram Yuldoshev. In the late 1990s, Akramiya became a household name after the Uzbek authorities banned the organization. Yuldoshev himself was imprisoned in 1999, and continues to serve a 17-year prison term.

Akramiya's alleged involvement in the Andijon uprising is disputed by human rights activists, Uzbek opposition figures in exile, independent media, and at least one former Uzbek security agent. Russian media have speculated that the group never existed at all, and was made up by the Uzbek government to justify a crackdown on religious extremism.

Who freed the prisoners?

The Uzbek authorities arrested the 23 Andijoni businessmen on the basis of their separatist and Islamist aims in relation to their membership in Akramiya. This, in turn, is alleged to have caused outrage among their sympathizers.

The official line is that on the night of May 12, a group of men attacked a military garrison, seized arms, then set upon the Andijon city jail and freed prisoners, including the local businessmen. Several prison guards were reportedly killed in the violence, and a few official buildings were taken over by the armed men.

Uzbek soldiers check documents in the street in Andijon a few days after the violence.
This violence was cited by the government as the reason for the harsh crackdown that ensued. But up until May 12 the protests in Andijon had largely been described as peaceful, and participants as unarmed civilians. With no one coming forward to take responsibility for the action, the suggestion has been made that the group was not connected to the protests at all. It remains unclear who, exactly, the gunmen were.

How many people died on May 13, 2005?

In the early evening of May 13, government troops fired into crowds of protesters, which included women and children, in what is today known as the "Andijon massacre."

The precise number of people who died that day, however, is hotly disputed. The number given by Uzbek officials is 187, including government troops. The breakdown: 94 terrorists, 20 law enforcement officials, 11 soldiers, 57 ordinary residents, and five unidentified individuals. The estimated number of dead given by rights groups and government opponents, however, ranges from several hundred to nearly 1,000.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security grouping of which Uzbekistan is a member, backed Tashkent's official version of events, saying it was a plot by terrorists and extremist groups. An EU fact-finding delegation sent to the city in 2006, more than a year after the bloodshed, was unable to gather more information.

What happened to the injured?

Both sides agree that many people were killed on May 13, 2005, but with no official casualty figures issued, the number of those injured remains one of the biggest mysteries of Andijon. According to eyewitness reports and right groups, government forces shot injured protesters lying in the streets, presumably to finish off the wounded.

The unidentified body of a protester lies in the street on May 13, 2005.
Where are the bodies?

Eyewitnesses of the Andijon events, including an RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent, refugees, and rights activists say the bodies of protesters -- mostly women and children -- were loaded onto trucks and trailers, driven out of Andijon, and buried in mass graves in unknown locations.

After some Andijon inhabitants claimed there were mass graves on the city's outskirts, an RFE/RL correspondent visited one such site on May 27, 2005, and was shown what appeared to be 37 gravesites. Claims of the existence of mass graves have never been verified or officially addressed by the government. Foreign media and rights activists have noted that while the bodies of dead men were returned to their relatives, the bodies of women and children believed killed in the Andijon unrest have never been accounted for.

What became of Akramiya?

After Uzbek government forces moved in to take control of Andijon, hundreds of the city's residents fled across the border to nearby Kyrgyzstan. From there, some 400 Andijon refugees eventually moved on to settle in Europe, North America, and Australia.

After one year, reports began to emerge that some refugees had begun to return to Uzbekistan, where they faced the prospect of arrest. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported in April that Diloram Abduqodirova, a housewife with four children who emigrated to Australia but was arrested at Tashkent airport upon returning to Uzbekistan in January, was sentenced to 10 years and two months in prison for her role in the Andijon protests.

Of the 23 Akramiya businessmen, three currently reside in Holland, one in Finland, one in Sweden, and one in the United States. One of the businessmen is missing and his fate is unknown. The remaining 16 were jailed in Uzbekistan, of which one, Ortiqov Muhammadshokir, died under unclear circumstances.

In the immediate aftermath of the Andijon events, Uzbekistan demanded that the Kyrgyz authorities extradite those Akramiya businessmen who had sought refuge there. They were never handed over, possibly in part due to warnings by rights groups that they could face torture and even the death penalty in Uzbekistan.

compiled by Farangis Najibullah, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

Torture In Uzbek Prisons

This letter was secretly passed from strict penal colony No. 64/33 (near the city of Karshi in the Kashkadarya region) in July or August 2009 and received by the group Human Rights in Central Asia in December 2009:

From Colony No. 64/33 we write, those who were imprisoned on false charges and sentenced according to Article 159 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

There are 121 prisoners here imprisoned according to Article 159. We all ended up here in different years. We are all different people. Our characters are also different, but our destiny is the same. Our destiny has been pleased to see what man could never have imagined.

Looking at these masters and jailers it is hard to believe that they were born to women. Born a human being should remain a human being. And they are wild creatures and inhuman monsters. The pain they caused us is impossible to describe. They rape us with a club (stick), enema syringe with a red pepper; and beat on the heels till they bleed.

These are the methods of violence they like. This all seems not enough to them, and they come up with various new methods of torture. They rape with sticks those who suffer from AIDS, and use those same sticks to rape other prisoners. They laugh and say with a jeer: "You all pray, call each other 'brothers,' and aren't you ashamed to infect each other with AIDS?"

In the medical unit for healthy people, they use syringes that were previously used for patients with AIDS. A prisoner called Holmirza, who expressed indignation, was forcibly given the blood of a prisoner with AIDS. Then Holmirza was transported to another colony, and it's still not known to which one.

Dear friends! Mothers! Fathers!

Our torments are increasing, not diminishing. The torturers threw aside all restraints and became violent. They know that they will not answer for this under the law, but do not know that they will have to give an answer before God and his judgment. For certain reasons known to you, we do not write our names. Consider that the letter was signed by 121 prisoners.

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