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Uzbekistan: Road Project Spurs First Public Protest In Nine Years

A small group of Tashkent residents this week held a low-key but potentially significant demonstration outside the office of the city's mayor. The demonstrators' demand was simple: a halt to the planned demolition of their homes to make way for a road. But RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that in a country where public protest is rare, the consequences of the demonstration may be far-reaching.

Prague, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Public displays of dissatisfaction with the government are rare in Uzbekistan.

In January 1992 -- just four months after becoming an independent country -- Uzbekistan was rocked by student protests that spread through several cities. The demonstrations, demanding higher stipends and the release of imprisoned students, ultimately turned violent, claiming at least two lives.

Virtually no public protests have been held in Uzbekistan since.

On 20 March, however, a small group of people in the capital city Tashkent gathered outside the mayor's office to protest a plan to destroy their homes in order to clear the way for a road-building project.

Protesters chanted and waved signs reading "Local officials and the state are violating the rights of their own citizens," in what one local rights activist called the first public demonstration since 1992. Tatyana Bukhareva was among the protesters. She said officials were violating an Uzbek law that forbids the destruction of private property without owner consent:

"The point is they are illegally destroying our house and forcing us out. But we are the owners of this house."

Such conflicts have become increasingly heated as Uzbek officials rush to build more roads to meet the country's growing number of automobiles. A number of the country's Soviet-era buildings have been torn down in recent years to make room for road projects. But until now, residents displaced by the construction have kept their protests to themselves.

Yelena Urlayova was another of the protesters outside the mayor's office. She said she had already tried unsuccessfully to take her complaint to the human rights departments of the state parliament and the president's office. She also appealed for help to Uzbekistan's ombudsman, Sayyora Rashidova, but said Rashidova's deputy called the militia and had her thrown out.

Urlayova said the series of incidents led her to join the 20 March protest:

"This has become the only measure of protest against the tyranny of officials."

Bukhareva added she would continue to protest despite apparent threats to her home:

"I'm standing here but there [at my home] they warned me the militia will come and throw my things out of the house."

Ahmal Saidov, the head of the government's Human Rights Center, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 20 March that he was unaware of the protest outside the mayor's office. Saidov said he had received no complaints from residents about the road project.

Ruslan Sharipov of Uzbekistan's non-governmental Society for Human Rights said the incident marks the country's first significant protest since 1992. He added that the protesters -- many of whom remain outside the building on a declared hunger strike -- were consciously putting themselves at risk of arrest or other official punishment.

He said: "In Uzbekistan it is very difficult to hold demonstrations or meetings. It is simply dangerous for participants in the meetings. The protesters recognize the danger but decided to go ahead with the demonstration since they felt they had no choice."

Uzbek officials have promised a response to the demonstrator's appeal by the end of the weekend.

(Ulughbek Normatov, Biloliddin Hasanov, and Zamira Echanova of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)