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June 8, 2005

Rights Group Calls Uzbek Deaths a 'Massacre'

by Jim Lobe

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 in Andijan."

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 on terror."

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 slaughter."

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 U.S. apologist.

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)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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