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Uzbekistan: Police Crush Protest In Tashkent

As midnight neared in Tashkent on 3 May, truncheon-wielding riot police set on a small encampment of protesters that included many women and children. Police herded them roughly into buses for rapid removal from the capital. By morning, city workers had eliminated all traces of the event. Uzbekistan has seen larger protests recently without such forceful police intervention. What was different about this protest? And why did it provoke such a violent reaction?

The protest began on the morning of 3 May in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent. Numbering 71 by their own count, the protesters set up tents and announced that they would hold their ground until their demands were met, reported. The bulk of the protesters, who included many women and children, were members of the Choriev family and hailed from the city of Shahrisabz in Kashkadarya Province. Their chief demand was the return of a farm they alleged was illegally confiscated by Uzbek authorities in 2001. They gathered before the U.S. Embassy, a family representative told, because they had despaired of obtaining justice from Uzbekistan's authorities and hoped to draw the attention of the U.S. State Department and the international community to their plight.

As detailed in a 4 May report, protesters clashed with plainclothes police as the demonstration was getting under way, but police retreated when demonstrators put up stiff resistance and pelted them with stones. Police made more subtle efforts to dislodge the protesters later in the day, surrounding them and preventing local residents from giving them water even as the temperature rose to 27 degrees Celsius. Later in the day, city authorities moved in equipment to pave the roadway near demonstrators, but gave up when female protesters lay down in front of the paving machine.

The protesters' demands were not entirely apolitical. A photograph on showed children holding a sign that read "We demand the resignation of [Prime Minister Shavkat] Mirziyoev." Protesters also demanded the resignation of Mahmud Asqarov, head of the State Property Committee, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported.
"When the crowd [of policemen] was running toward them, the protesters were shouting: 'We surrender. We surrender. We'll go away.' Two seconds later, police reached them and went on beating them with truncheons."

Nightfall found the protesters settling into their tents for what they expected would be a quiet night. But at approximately 11:20 p.m., correspondents from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service were witnesses to a violent assault on the demonstrators by plainclothes and uniformed police. Various reports put the total number of police involved in the operation at around 100.

RFE/RL correspondent Husnutdin Kutbiddinov reported: "Two buses full of Interior Ministry officers arrived and started beating protesters, including both men and women, with truncheons. In tents set up outside the embassy, there were little children, including 9- and 10-month-old babies. Many policemen stamped on those tents. There were little children asleep there. I don't know what happened to them. Almost all [the protesters] seemed to be injured. Their noses and mouths were bleeding. They were forced into buses that departed in an unknown direction."

IWPR correspondent Galima Bukharbaeva told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the protesters were "trembling with fear. When the crowd [of policemen] was running toward them, the protesters were shouting: 'We surrender. We surrender. We'll go away.' Two seconds later, police reached them and went on beating them with truncheons." In her report for, Bukharbaeva noted that she and other correspondents were nearly swept up in the clampdown; only the intervention of a Tashkent police official saved them from a beating at the hands of riot police.

After buses removed the protesters from the capital, city workers set about eliminating all traces of the violence. A correspondent from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service found the area in front of the U.S. Embassy empty and clean on the morning of 4 May. A nearby walkway had been freshly paved. Local residents were reluctant to speak on the record about the events of the night before, but one witness shared the following impression:

"At dusk last night, I saw people there. Most of them were women and children. When I came back at midnight, I just saw two policemen cleaning up the area where there had been tents. My relatives told me that a bunch of people mainly in civilian clothes attacked the demonstrators. Later, uniformed police joined in and used force to cram the demonstrators into buses. They must have paved over the walkway in front of our building to cover up the traces of blood."

The next day, the U.S. Embassy expressed regret over the violent breakup of the demonstration. As quoted by the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), the U.S. statement read: "The demonstrators who had set up a camp across the street from the US Embassy on 3 May were exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly that are recognized by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They posed no threat to embassy security, nor did they interfere with the embassy's operations in any way. We regret that government authorities overnight removed them and resorted to force to do so."

Vyacheslav Tutin, a spokesman for Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry, said that police decided to use force to remove the demonstrators after the clash earlier in the day injured four policemen, RFE/RL reported. He put the number of demonstrators at 11 men, 13 women, and 19 children. Svetlana Ortiqova, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, stressed that no criminal charges were filed against any of the demonstrators.

For their part, participants in the demonstration complained of harassment during and after their forcible expulsion from Tashkent. Zulayho Chorieva told IRIN: "Our children were thrown into the buses like animals. We were insulted and humiliated all the way down to Kashkadarya. Since then we haven't seen our men and don't know what happened to them."

On 6 May, reported that authorities in Qarshi released 11 men they had been holding since the police broke up the demonstration three days earlier. Bakhtiyor Choriev had been a leader and spokesman for the demonstrators in Tashkent; described him as clearly frightened when he was released in Qarshi after three days in police custody. Upon his release, Choriev said that he had promised the police he would not take part in any further protests.

At least one local observer saw in the demonstration and its violent end an indication that Uzbekistan's traditional opposition, a mix of banned and unregistered opposition parties and human rights activists, is weak. Bakhtyor Hamroev, a Jizzakh-based human rights activist, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 4 May that he was saddened to see the demonstrators left to face police on their own. "The Free Farmers party, which calls itself a defender of rights; the people who pound their chests and declare themselves members of the Erk party; the supposed 22,000 members of Birlik and their leaders -- where were they? They should have been among the demonstrators," he said.

As IWPR noted in a 4 May report, the Choriev family's protest was "symptomatic of a new kind of grassroots action in Uzbekistan -- based on economic concerns, rather then Islamic radicalism or political opposition as in the past." Recent protests confirm this, with economic complaints sparking a demonstration by up to 10,000 individual traders in Kokand in November 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 2004), a riot in Jizzakh Province in late March 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April 2005), and a hunger strike by 400 workers in Ferghana Province that ended only on 2 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April and 2-3 May 2005).

In previous instances of economic unrest, Uzbek authorities made efforts to avoid violence, even when protests turned violent, as they did in Kokand in November 2004 and Jizzakh in March 2005. In Jizzakh, the regional governor visited the village where the beating of a local rights activist had provoked rioting, served villagers a free meal, and apologized to them.

No such accommodations were in the offing when demonstrators gathered near the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent on 3 May, however. The harsh response indicates that there are clear-cut cases when the authorities will spurn the carrot and reach for the stick. The Choriev family demonstration appears to have crossed two red lines -- first, by bringing a hint of rural social unrest to the capital, and second, by appealing to an outside power. Faced with the prospect of an open-ended protest in Tashkent aimed at the international community, the Uzbek authorities chose to send in riot police against unarmed women and children. For future protesters, the line is now drawn clearly in the sand.

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