Late on May 12 an armed group stormed a prison in Andijan, a town of 350,000 inhabitants in the east of the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The group liberated some 4000 prisoners, including 23 detainees accused of being members of Akramiya, described by the Uzbek government of President Islam Karimov as a split from Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), although its existence is yet to even be proven. The rebels occupied a regional government building. The next day thousands rallied in Andijan, calling for freedom for other political prisoners.
Correspondents for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting estimated the crowd as having grown to 20,000 when Karimov’s troops moved against the protest, using armoured cars moving at high speed to spray the protesters with gunfire. Some witnesses estimate the number of dead at more than 700. The Karimov government claimed nine protesters were killed and 34 injured, later upping its figures to 169 dead.
The government has tried to portray the protesters as diehard Islamic â€œterroristsâ€, but according to a May 16 Eurasia Insight report, â€œRadical Islamic rhetoric … did not feature prominently during the protestâ€. Instead protesters â€œcalled on Karimov to resign, voicing complaints with the government’s economic and political policiesâ€.
Despite the massacre, protesters took to the streets again the next day. â€œWhat kind of government is this?â€, one asked an Associated Press reporter. â€œPeople were raising their hands up in the air showing they were without arms but soldiers were still shooting at them.â€
Thousands of those who survived the Andijan massacre fled towards neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. One refugee told reporters with the UN’s IRIN news service that she had gone to May 13 protest with her husband and her four children. When soldiers and police officers opened fire on demonstrators, she and her family fled to the border. In the panic, some protesters were trampled by the crowd and others who fled were so badly injured they had to be left in villages along the way.
When the refugees reached the border, Uzbekistan soldiers opened fire on them injuring some, according to another asylum seeker who survived the experience. Eurasia Insight reported that, according to an Uzbek human rights group, a â€œclash in Pakhtabad on May 15 between government troops and Uzbeks trying to cross over to Kyrgyzstan left another 200 deadâ€.
The May 16 New York Times reported that there were rumours of skirmishes between the government forces and armed rebels in and around Andijan and that â€œperhaps thousandsâ€ of refugees were heading towards Kyrgyzstan.
Associated Press reported on May 18 that anti-government Islamic forces had taken over the town of Korasuv and were promising to resist any government attempts to retake it. The next day, AP reported that Karimov’s troops had occupied the town.
How did the White House respond to the ferocious repression of protesters carried out by Karimov’s government â€” one of its key allies in Central Asia?
â€œWe have had concerns about human rights in Uzbekistan, but we are concerned about the outbreak of violence, particularly by some members of a terrorist organisation that were freed from prisonâ€, White House spokesperson Scott McClellan told reporters. He urged both the government and the protesters to â€œexercise restraintâ€. He added that the â€œpeople of Uzbekistan want to see a more representative and democratic government, but that should come through peaceful means, not through violenceâ€.
Leaving aside that Karimov’s soldiers had opened fire on a peaceful protest, and that only a handful of people had died during the raid on the prison and the regional governments’ offices, the US State Department’s own 2004 human rights report on Uzbekistan noted: â€œCitizens could not exercise the right to change their government peacefully.â€
A blistering op-ed by former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray in the May 16 British Guardian responded to McClellan by noting that on December 7, 2004, a â€œpeaceful picket at the gates of the British embassy [in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent] was broken up with great violence, its victims including women and children. So how can Uzbeks pursue democracy by â€˜peaceful means’?
â€œTake the 23 businessmen whose trial for â€˜Islamic extremism’ sparked recent events. Had the crowd not sprung them from jail, what would have awaited them? The conviction rate in criminal and political trials in Uzbekistan is over 99% â€” in President Karimov’s torture chambers, everyone confesses.â€
Physical and psychological torture of prisoners is rife in Uzbekistan. A Human Rights Watch report released in 2004 cited cases of beatings by fists or with truncheons or metal rods, rape and other sexual violence, threats to rape family members, use of lit cigarettes and newspapers to burn detainees, asphyxiation with plastic bags or gas masks, the tearing out of fingernails, and immersion in boiling liquids.
Murray was sacked from the Foreign Office after revealing that the British MI6 intelligence service used information extracted by torture in Uzbekistan. He explained in his article that while the intelligence is â€œalmost entirely bogusâ€, it is valuable â€œbecause it feeds into the US agendaâ€ of the so-called war on terror.
Why has the US so far only offered limp criticisms of Karimov’s atrocities? Testifying before a US Senate subcommittee in June 2004, Lynn Pascoe, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, explained that â€œCentral Asia has a major strategic importance for the United States, and Uzbekistan inevitably assumes a key role in our policy toward the regionâ€.
She told senators that the US and Uzbekistan, the most populous country in Central Asia, â€œenjoy strong security cooperation. Uzbekistan has been an early and outspoken supporter of the war on terrorism. Indeed, it has played a critical role in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and provided the military base at Karshi-Khanabad, now home to roughly 1500 US servicemen and women, without rent or as part of a broader defence agreement.â€
Uzbekistan was one of the first countries to sign an agreement with Washington that exempted US nationals from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
In March 2002, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Uzbek foreign minister Adulaziz Kamilov signed a far-reaching strategic partnership agreement that covered political, economic and military cooperation between the two countries, including cooperating in â€œcombating transnational threats to society [i.e., the 'war on terror']â€ and continuing â€œtheir dynamic military and military-technical cooperationâ€.
Between 1992 and 2002 the US provided US$508 million in aid to Tashkent. In fiscal year 2002 financial assistance to Tashkent was in the order of $219.8 million across all US government agencies; $79 million of it â€” the largest portion â€” was allocated to â€œsecurity and law enforcementâ€. In 2003 the assistance was $86.1 million, the largest part of it again going to â€œsecurityâ€.
The bulk of the spending was allocated under the Foreign Operations Act, which made aid dependent on the State Department assessing that Tashkent was making â€œsubstantial and continuingâ€ progress on political and economic reform. A March 2004 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that â€œcertification was provided in 2002 and 2003, despite objections that there was little basis for itâ€.
In July 2004 the State Department finally withheld $18 million of aid citing a â€œlack of progress on democratic reformâ€. However, the department’s spokesperson emphasised that Uzbekistan remained â€œan important partner of the United States in the war on terror and we have many shared strategic goals… This decision does not mean that either our interests in the region or our desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed. We want to continue to work with Uzbekistan to pursue our common goals and to implement the standards and ideals in the strategic partnership framework.â€
Washington’s mild criticisms of Karimov’s despotic regime have been driven by fears that, without any outlet for dissent, social explosions like that in Andijan could politically destabilise Uzbekistan and have serious consequences for US interests in Central Asia. The ICG’s report assessed that Uzbekistan’s â€œregime needs to open up the political environment so as to introduce more experts and independent-minded politicians into the ruling elite. Even more importantly, it needs to provide legal channels for the expression of discontent so that non-constitutional opposition does not grow.â€
Since Karimov took power in 1990 he has ruled with an iron fist. In particular he has persecuted Muslims who stray from the officially sanctioned religious institutions. Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that advocates bringing about an Islamic state through non-violent means, has faced the worst repression.
Since 9/11, Karimov has justified the persecution of â€œindependent Muslimsâ€ by invoking Washington’s ‘war on terror’. Ironically, the lack of democratic means to express dissent has helped the growth of Islamic â€œterroristâ€ organisations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The IMU is classed as a terrorist organisation by the US government and it is believed to have carried out a string of suicide bombings in 1999.