Uzbek authorities maintain that 173 people were killed in clashes between troops and protesters that began in the eastern city of Andijon on 13 May and that most of the dead were “bandits.”
But rights groups and opposition political parties say as many as 1,000 people were killed, most of them innocent civilians.
Now, opposition activists who try to provide more details to bolster their account of the events in east Uzbekistan say they are increasingly being harassed by authorities.
Vitalii Ponomaryov of the Russian rights group Memorial said Uzbek human rights groups are under “unprecedented” pressure to be silent.
“Of course we’re seeing unprecedented pressure on human rights organizations, not just in the Andijon region but other regions of Uzbekistan also," Ponomaryov said. "And one of the reasons, I think, is that rights defenders could succeed in uncovering the hidden secrets of the Andijon events and reveal facts that would cast doubt on the authorities’ version of events.”
The Ezgulik human rights group, which is especially active in Uzbekistan’s section of the Ferghana Valley, said yesterday that two of its activists from its Andijon branch were arrested in recent days.
The unregistered opposition party Birlik said 27 of its members have been arrested, mostly in Tashkent.
Numerous reports posted on websites speak of local authorities going door-to-door in the Andijon region. They warn people that residents would do well to avoid speaking with journalists and rights activists who travel there as the military eases security measures.
Maisy Weicherding is a researcher for Central Asia at the London-based rights group Amnesty International. She said her organization is also getting reports of a sweeping crackdown in recent days.
“We’re getting daily reports of people either put under house arrest or beaten up or threatened or detained and it seems they [Uzbek authorities] are generally trying to generate an atmosphere of fear, and I think they’re slowly succeeding,” Weicherding said.
If there is a crackdown underway in Uzbekistan, it would hardly be surprising. Weicherding said the Uzbek government has a history of resorting to such techniques after outbreaks of unrest.
“Mass arrests started December 1997; that’s when there was some violence in Namangan and that was followed by thousands of people being arbitrarily detained," Weicherding said. "And then there were bombs in February 1999 in Tashkent, then again we saw thousands of people arbitrarily detained, arrested. And again last year, after the bombings in Tashkent and Bukhara in March and April, again we saw the same thing happening.”
Unlike those events, which seemed likely the work of criminals or terrorists, the violence in Andijon more resembled popular unrest. Scores of people have been arrested since the Andijon violence but, so far, not so many as were detained following the earlier bombings. The Uzbek government’s focus instead now seems to be preventing any information that contradicts the official line from leaking to the outside world.
Weicherding of Amnesty International warned that as world media attention turns away from Uzbekistan in the coming weeks to other crises elsewhere, the Uzbek government could step up the pace of arrests further.
“As we’re moving away from 13 May, I fear once media attention is focusing somewhere else and isn’t considering Uzbekistan anymore, then we’re going to see even more arrests,” Weicherding said.
In the meantime, the Uzbek parliament has formed a commission that is tasked with thoroughly investigating the tragedy in Andijon. It is unclear when the commission’s report will be made public.