The unrest in Andijon, a city of 300,000, unfolded against the backdrop of the trial of 23 prominent local businessmen on charges of involvement in an Islamic extremist group. Forum 18, a Norway-based organization that covers issues of religious freedom, reported in February, when the trial began, that the men denied any extremist involvement and insisted that they had merely tried to integrate Islamic ethical principles into their business practices.
But prosecutors alleged that the men were members of a group called "Akramiya," so called after its founder, Akram Yuldoshev. According to a 5 April article on centrasia.ru by Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, head of the Andijon-based human rights group Appelyatsiya, Yuldoshev was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir in 1986-88. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses the establishment of a caliphate throughout Central Asia and the implementation of Islamic law, officially eschews violence, but its radical aims, virulently anti-Jewish and anti-American rhetoric, and conspiratorial structure have led many to define it as an extremist organization. Today, it is banned in all Central Asian countries except Kazakhstan.
Yuldoshev left Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Zaynabitdinov, as a result of unspecified differences of opinion. Yuldoshev went on to write a pamphlet in 1992 called "The Path to Faith," which Zaynabitdinov has translated into Russian and made available on the Internet (http://news.ferghana.ru/archive/yul.doc). The text deals primarily with ethical issues and does not contain any overtly political passages. But Yuldoshev fell afoul of the Uzbek authorities in the 1990s, and in 1999 he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for involvement in a series of bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, Forum 18 reported. For their part, the businessmen on trial have said that they were influenced by Yuldoshev's thoughts on Islamic ethics, but denied the existence of a group called Akramiya, terming it a fabrication of overzealous prosecutors.
Human rights activists in Andijon told RFE/RL on 11 May that the defendants in the Akramiya case may have fallen victim to local rivals who coveted their business assets. Melissa Hooper, an American lawyer in Tashkent who has worked with the defense in the trial, told "The New York Times" on 14 May, "This is more about [the businessmen] acquiring economic clout, and perhaps refusing to pay off the local authorities, than about any religious beliefs." Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan Department of the Institute of CIS Countries, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" in a 14 May interview that the trial was simply an attempt to "take away the business of several entrepreneurs under a clearly trumped-up pretext."
As the trial drew to a close, peaceful protests by up to 4,000 relatives and supporters of the businessmen took place in Andijon on 10-11 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 May 2005). Then, on the night of 12 May, events in the city suddenly spun out of control.
Because there were few reporters in Andijon when the unrest erupted, the picture of what happened there on 12-13 May is incomplete. But the overall outlines, along with many corroborating details, are clear in the numerous reports filed from Andijon by correspondents for the BBC, fergana.ru, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), and Reuters. The following condensed account is based on those reports.
At around midnight on 12 May, a group of approximately 100 relatives and supporters of the accused businessmen attacked a military garrison and a prison in Andijon, seizing weapons and freeing up to 4,000 prisoners, including the Akramiya defendants. They went on to seize the regional-administration building in Andijon, where a protest meeting soon drew thousands of residents to the city's center.
As these events unfolded, President Karimov arrived in Andijon from Tashkent to direct personally his government's actions, as official news agency UzA later reported. Special forces and army units took up positions. Negotiations began but led nowhere. Sharipjon Shakirov, who had served a four-year prison term for membership in Akramiya, told RFE/RL from the regional-administration building in Andijon that the protesters' only demand was that the authorities release "people who were imprisoned on slander, including Akram Yuldoshev."
In the early evening, government forces opened fire on the demonstrators and stormed the occupied building. Correspondents for IWPR and fergana.ru described horrific scenes, as guns mounted on armored personnel carriers spit bullets into the terrified crowd. Evening brought heavy rain, uneasy calm, and uncertainty over the fate of the armed insurgents in the regional-administration building. Reports of sporadic gunfire continued through morning, until fergana.ru finally reported on 14 May that insurgents had left the building accompanied by soldiers.
The only official report on casualties, issued before the escalation in early evening, listed nine dead and 34 wounded. But Reuters, the BBC, and fergana.ru all reported that dozens of protesters had been killed. The BBC later said that some Andijon residents put the possible death toll in the hundreds. Fergana.ru's correspondent reported that he personally counted 30 bodies heaped on the ground outside a movie theater. He quoted eyewitnesses as saying that "hundreds of unarmed peaceful residents were struck by automatic-weapons fire. At first, they shot them from machine guns mounted on their vehicles, and then soldiers followed on foot mercilessly finishing off the wounded, including women and children."
Official news agency UzA's report on the events of 13 May began as follows: "In connection with the events that took place, Uzbek President Islam Karimov arrived in the city of Andijon early on the morning of 13 May. The head of state, after studying the situation from all sides, gave concrete instructions and directions to the appropriate organizations and agencies to end the situation. In the evening, President Islam Karimov returned to Tashkent." The report went on to lay the blame on "gangsters, hiding behind women, children, and other hostages they took, [who] refused a compromise resolution of the conflict." It provided no information on casualties.
CRUSHING ALL DISSENT
In 1982, Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad ended a confrontation in the city of Hama between his government and the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood by turning his army loose on the city. Thousands were killed. The brutal crackdown evoked a muted international response, for its purported target was an Islamic extremist group, and al-Assad, having established a fearsome reputation for himself at home, ruled undisturbed until his death in 2000.
Though the scale of 13 May's events in Andijon does not match the slaughter in Hama, the logic behind President Karimov's actions appears similar -- to crack the whip and cow any would-be challengers.
The purported peril of religious extremism is a key plank in this strategy, and Karimov has consistently justified his tough policies with the need to defend Uzbekistan from an imminent Islamist threat. But the evidence does not seem to support such a view of the bloodshed in Andijon. For one, the "Islamist" link to the Akramiya defendants is tenuous, relying on Akram Yuldoshev's onetime membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. More importantly, none of the statements attributed to protesters in credible reports conformed to Islamist models in form or content. In fact, several reports noted that protesters focused on such pressing economic issues as poverty and unemployment, taking pains to distance themselves from any hint of religious extremism. Finally, as Sharipjon Shakirov confirmed to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, the insurgents appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to act as a mediator, an unlikely choice for committed Islamists.
But at the core of the Hama strategy lurks a different variety of extremism -- extreme force to demonstrate the utter futility of resistance. The result is a political arena in which force becomes the ultimate arbiter of disputes. And since this force must eventually be administered in the form of violent actions, it not only leaves losses in its wake, but also brings with it the possibility of equally violent reactions.
Several Dead After Violent Day In Uzbek City
Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs
Analysis: Police Crush Protest In Tashkent
Analysis: Economic Concerns Primary In Andijon
Background: Banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Faces Dwindling Appeal, Internal Divisions
Interview: Opposition Leader Tells RFE/RL About 'Farmers' Revolution'