Last month's violence in Andijan, Uzbekistan,
amounted to a "massacre" by government forces against mostly unarmed
civilians, according to a
new report released here Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, which declined to estimate the total number of dead, rejected charges
by the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov that radical Islamists
bent on overthrowing the regime were behind the events of May 13-14.
"The Uzbek authorities are trying to whitewash this massacre," said
Kenneth Roth, HRW's executive director. "Our investigation is a first step
toward setting the record straight. But only a full-fledged international investigation,
with access to official records, can give a true picture of the tragic events
The Karimov government has so far rejected calls by the European Union, the
United States, and other international groups for such an investigation. The
EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, disclosed Tuesday that Tashkent last
week denied his own human rights representative a visa to enter Uzbekistan to
go to Andijan and try to persuade the regime to accept an international inquiry.
Based on more than 50 eyewitness interviews conducted in Andijan and in neighboring
Kyrgyzstan, the HRW report, entitled "Bullets Were Falling Like Rain,"
will likely add to an ongoing debate in Washington over the future of U.S. relations
with Uzbekistan, which, since 2001, has been considered a key ally in the "war
Several influential Republicans have recently called on the George W. Bush
administration to reassess its ties with Tashkent.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the
Pentagon, Karimov permitted Washington the use of its Karshi-Khanabad air base,
which proved particularly valuable during and after the U.S. campaign to oust
the Taliban in nearby Afghanistan.
In addition, the U.S. has "rendered" an unknown number of terrorist
suspects to Uzbekistan for interrogation despite the security forces' notorious
reputation for routinely using torture on suspected dissidents and Islamists.
U.S. forces still use the base in exchange for increased military and security
assistance to the regime, which until Andijan had been considered a pillar of
stability in often-tumultuous Central Asia.
Negotiations between the two governments on a long-term, formal agreement on
U.S. use of the base have been going on for several months. In its report, HRW
urged Washington to suspend the talks until Tashkent agrees to cooperate with
an international inquiry into the Andijan killings and to sever military ties
if it doesn't.
According to the new report, the violence in Andijan, a city in the densely
populated Fergana Valley where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all converge,
began around midnight on May 12 when 50 to 100 friends and family members of
34 businessmen who were being tried for "religious fundamentalism"
raided a military barracks and the jail where they were being held, freeing
them and scores of other prisoners and seizing weapons.
The following morning, thousands of people converged in the city's Bobor Square
in a rare but spontaneous anti-government protest that grew steadily as the
day went on.
Contrary to later government accounts, demonstrators voiced their anger about
growing poverty and government repression, according to witnesses interviewed
by HRW. The report says that "HRW found no evidence that any of the speakers
at the protest promoted an Islamist agenda."
By then, the original attackers had taken over the main government building
and were holding police and government officials hostage. "The attackers
committed serious crimes," Roth stressed Tuesday. "Of course, the
government had the right and duty to stop them. But that doesn't justify shooting
unarmed people on a mass scale."
That, however, is precisely what happened, according to the 65-page report.
Snipers and government troops on armored personnel carriers and military trucks
began firing indiscriminately into a crowd "in which the overwhelming majority
of people – numbering in the thousands – were unarmed."
After sealing off the square, they continued firing from various directions,
even as the protesters tried to flee the area.
"One group of [300 to 400] fleeing protesters was literally mowed down
by government gunfire," according to the report, which noted that the "presence
of gunmen in the crowd, and even the possibility that they may have fired at
or returned from the government forces, cannot possibly justify this wanton
The government itself has claimed that the death toll came to 173 people –
mostly police and civilians killed by the original attackers, as well as the
attackers themselves – but local human rights groups and individuals who
subsequently visited morgues or grave sites report a much higher death toll
of around 750.
In the event's aftermath, according to the report, Uzbek authorities forced
the few journalists who were present to leave the city and confiscated their
materials. In addition, local security officials explicitly warned survivors
not to talk to anyone about what had taken place.
While the government has launched a criminal investigation into the events
in Andijan, indications to date suggest it will not include an inquiry into
the use of lethal force by government forces, according to HRW. The group also
said that a commission of inquiry mandated by the Uzbek parliament is unlikely
to conduct a thorough investigation of the performance of the security forces.
The findings are certain to fuel the debate here over the future of U.S.-Uzbek
relations. Even before the Andijan events, the Bush administration was itself
divided between the Pentagon, which considers the Karshi-Khanabad air base a
particularly valuable piece of real estate vis-à-vis not only Afghanistan,
but Russia and China as well, and the State Department.
Last year, the State Department cut $18 million in military and security assistance
due to Karimov's failure to follow through on promised human rights and political
reforms. The move was followed, however, by the Pentagon's announcement that
it was providing the government $21 million in supplemental assistance, ostensibly
to help it dispose of Soviet-era biological weapons.
While the Pentagon remains the dominant player in U.S.-Uzbek relations, pressure
for a reassessment, even among Republicans, is building. Late last month, a
visiting delegation of three Republican senators, including John McCain, called
for an international inquiry into Andijan.
Moreover, the group's request for a meeting with top Tashkent officials was
rejected at the same time that the government refused to renew the visas of
Washington's 54 Peace Corps volunteers.
In addition, the neoconservative Weekly Standard, which has in the past
defended Karimov as a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam, has moved
against him in Andijan's wake.
"Washington cannot turn a blind eye to massacres in a country where U.S.
troops are based and that receives U.S. assistance," wrote editor William
Kristol and contributor Stephen Schwartz, who, until then, was Karimov's foremost
Still, the prevailing view for now was best expressed earlier this week by
Ariel Cohen, a Central Asia expert at the right-wing Heritage Foundation. "At
present … U.S. officials probably can't abandon Karimov because of the
credibility of the Islamic radical threat," he wrote on Eurasianet.
"Indeed, if Karimov's administration collapses, there is no force outside
of Islamic radicals that could stand a chance of filling the power vacuum."
(Inter Press Service)