(RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Uzbekistan have moved swiftly to disperse a small group of people determined to mark the fourth anniversary of a deadly government crackdown that sent many locals fleeing and cast a pall over relations with the West.
Human rights groups are marking the day by calling on the European Union to maintain sanctions against Uzbekistan despite improving relations between many Western governments and Tashkent.
Amnesty International is calling on Brussels "to use all opportunities available" to continue pressing for a full investigation into the circumstances around security forces' opening fire on demonstrators, killing many hundreds according to eyewitnesses and rights watchdogs.
In an open letter to the media on May 12, the Amnesty International notes that the international probe originally demanded by Brussels has never taken place.
The organization also calls on the EU to "send a strong public signal to the Uzbek authorities" at a ministerial meeting with all Central Asian countries on May 29. Tashkent Protest Quashed
Amnesty International's challenge was issued as a handful of protesters risked the ire of authorities by gathering in Tashkent to mark the March 13 anniversary of the clampdown.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reports that the group was quickly dispersed by police, and that seven protesters were detained. Protests were also scheduled in Dusseldorf, Germany, and in Stockholm, Sweden.
In Washington, Arizona Senator John McCain (Republican), who traveled to Uzbekistan in the wake of the 2005 violence, held a briefing on the Andijon events. McCain has sponsored legislation to impose targeted sanctions against Uzbek officials who played a direct role in the bloodshed.
He told the audience at the briefing -- which contained many family members of the victims -- that the “shocking evidence” he saw in 2005 made it “clear that the government’s account of events simply didn’t add up.” He added that the killings were “just the most dramatic and violent example of government repression in Uzbekistan and [are] part of a larger pattern of human rights abuses.”
McCain said that although Uzbekistan is a strategic partner in the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, the need to keep supply lines open should not trump the need to speak out against human rights abuses.
“We cannot allow ourselves simply to become dependent on the goodwill of President [Islam] Karimov. Nor can we fall silent in the face of such human rights abuses as we’ve seen in Uzbekistan," he said. "On the contrary, the United States has a critical role to play in Uzbekistan and throughout the world as the chief voice for the rights and integrity of all persons. It’s a role that we suppress at the world’s peril, and our own.”Calls For Investigation
McCain is among those concerned that memories are fading and Western governments are losing their determination for a full accounting of what happened.
He told the briefing that the legacy of the massacre "continues to sear Uzbek society" because there has never been an international independent inquiry to determine the facts surrounding the killings.
"The call for an independent investigation into Andijon was at the core of the EU's decision to set up sanctions on Uzbekistan back in 2005, but if you look at the language which the EU has used in suspending the sanctions and also in part lifting the sanctions, there is no longer any reference whatsoever to the Andijon mass killings or to investigations into the mass killings," David Nichols, executive officer for EU foreign policy at Amnesty International in Brussels, said.
He said that in light of discussions with EU officials, his group is "very concerned that the issue has gone off the agenda."
"Therefore, we are calling on the EU to make it clear that a call for an international investigation is still at the core of their relationship with Uzbekistan," Nichols said.
Destroyed vehicles in the streets of Andijon after the May 2005 clashes
Rights groups say hundreds of mostly innocent civilians were killed when Uzbek troops opened fire on a crowd rallying for government measures to ease social and economic hardships.
Tashkent says the troops acted to restore order after escaped prisoners mixed with demonstrators in the city's main square, and soon after the events alleged foreign involvement in an effort to overthrow the government
. But the indiscriminate shooting shocked the international community, sparking demands for a full and independent query into the tragedy.
Many Uzbeks fled the beleaguered
Andijon region amid official pressure
in the wake of the violence, and a number of high-profile trials resulted in prison sentences for alleged participants in the unrest. A defector from Uzbekistan's intelligence community who fled to Britain has implicated President Islam Karimov in the brutality, saying the longtime leader personally ordered
massacres.Brussels Backs Off
Shortly after the shooting, the EU placed a travel ban on officials linked to the Andijon crackdown plus an arms embargo on Tashkent. The lifting of the sanctions was made conditional upon the international inquiry.
The EU later shifted its position and made the measures conditional on improvements in Tashkent's human rights record, while it aggressively pursued energy and other cooperation with Uzbekistan.
Some observers have blamed Western isolation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government in the wake of Andijon for nudging him
toward a cozier relationship with Moscow at the expense of the West.
EU foreign ministers decided in October 2008 to lift the travel ban but keep in place the arms embargo, which comes up for review in October this year.
The rescinding of the travel ban came as EU officials said Tashkent had made progress in human rights, including abolishing the death penalty, releasing some political prisoners, and instituting habeas corpus.
The EU had previously suspended the travel ban in 2007 with the intention of "encouraging" greater cooperation from the Uzbek government. Commercial Break?
In its open letter marking this year's anniversary, Amnesty International says the level of investigation into the shootings in Andijon so far "cannot substitute an independent international investigation."
With Uzbek officials stifling public commemoration of the Andijon victims, public gestures like this one in neighboring Kyrgyzstan are all the region gets to see.
The organization notes that Uzbekistan cooperated in two rounds of expert talks with the EU in December 2006 and April 2007. But it says Uzbek authorities have stated that they consider the matter closed, most recently during the UN Universal Periodic Review of the country in December.
Some Western watchdog groups have charged the EU with progressively putting commercial interests ahead of human rights concerns over Andijon.
In an opinion piece in "The Wall Street Journal" to mark last year's anniversary, Andrew Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group charged Berlin with giving priority to its use of a military base in the southern Uzbek city of Termez. The base supports Germany's operations in Afghanistan.
Stroehlein also charged Berlin with giving priority to its hopes of including Uzbek gas in the EU's planned Nabucco pipeline to bring more energy to Europe.
The United States joined the EU's initial calls for a full independent investigation into Andijon, but it did not join Brussels in imposing sanctions.
Amid the crisis over Andijon, Tashkent evicted U.S. troops from an air base in southern Uzbekistan that was used to support operations in Afghanistan.
Washington has since given signs that it is interested in restoring a northern supply route via Central Asia to Afghanistan as militants periodically sabotage the southern route through the Khyber Pass linking Pakistan and Afghanistan.Contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Central Newsroom in Prague
The Legacy Of Andijon
Images from the aftermath of the brutal crackdown on protesters in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in 2005. Play