The popular uprising and subsequent crackdown
by government troops that left hundreds dead in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan
confirm the international community's concern over human rights violations in
this central Asian nation.
According to Nozima Kamalova, chairwoman of the Uzbekistan Legal Aid Society
one of the country's leading human rights organizations this former
Soviet republic is now essentially a dictatorship, with over 6,000 political
prisoners and a deplorable human rights record.
Uzbek civil society is calling out to Western governments to pressure the government
in Tashkent to respect human rights, said Kamalova, who traveled to Geneva as
part of a delegation of rights activists.
Since gaining independence in 1991 upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union,
Uzbekistan has been ruled with an iron fist by President Islam Karimov, who
first banned all political opposition, and then moved on to repress religious
activity, said the Uzbek attorney and activist.
Karimov has enjoyed strong support from the West, and particularly from the
government of U.S. President George W. Bush, which needed allies in the Central
Asian region for the late 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The death toll from the bloody events of the weekend in Andijan, a prosperous
city on the country's border with Kyrgyzstan, has yet to be confirmed.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation
in Tashkent, Rolin Wavre, said that it was extremely difficult to get a precise
idea of the number of deaths or to obtain information about what actually happened
But the civil society representatives who came to Geneva at the invitation
of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) maintain that over 500 people
were killed in the bloodshed.
Dilshad Tillamodjaev of the Center for Democratic Initiatives in Andijan noted
that when the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, many of the victims were women
"Karimov said that he didn't order them to shoot, but that is not true,"
Karimov and Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov appeared at a press conference
Tuesday, where the official death toll was placed at 169 comprised of 137
"terrorists" and 32 government soldiers, according to Kadyrov.
But representatives of the unregistered opposition Free Peasants Party announced
that at least 745 people were killed, 542 in Andijan and another 203 in the
nearby town of Pakhtabad.
Kamalova said the revolt in Andijan was influenced by uprisings in other former
Soviet republics like Georgia, Ukraine and most recently, Kyrgyzstan.
Andijan is somewhat unique in Uzbekistan, she noted, as the country's most
prosperous city, which is home to a large middle class, thanks to the local
A similar incident would be unlikely to take place in the capital, Tashkent,
because it is a much more conservative city, she added.
In Tillamodjaev's opinion, however, "This is a situation that could happen
in any region of the country, because there is a political, economic, and social
crisis in Uzbekistan."
A study released this week by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) states
that 27.5 percent of the country's nearly 26 million people live in poverty.
Laetitia Sedou, the European coordinator of the OMCT, told IPS that human rights
violations in Uzbekistan affect large sectors of the population, including women
and children, and particularly in areas outside the large cities.
Many of the human rights abuses involve members of religious groups, particularly
Islamic groups, which are branded terrorist organizations
There are also frequent attacks on human rights activists, members of opposition
political parties, and outspoken journalists, she added.
Kamalova reported that the roots of last week's unrest in Andijan go back to
the arrest and imprisonment last year of 23 successful local businessmen, who
were sentenced on charges related to their religious beliefs.
In the early morning hours on Friday, a group of armed men broke into the Andijan
prison and freed the 23 Muslim businessmen, who had been charged with "Islamic
According to a press release issued Monday by human rights watchdog Amnesty
International, all of the prison's 1,200 inmates were released at the same time.
Events turned bloody later in the day, when government soldiers surrounded
a crowd of several thousand protesters who had gathered in the city's main square
to demand justice, freedom, and an end to poverty.
"There were reports that gunfire was exchanged between armed men and soldiers,
and shots were apparently fired into the crowd," noted London-based Amnesty
International, which is calling for an independent investigation.
Kamalova maintains that it was President Karimov who gave the order to open
fire. "I think this is the beginning of the end for the government,"
(Inter Press Service)