The Uzbek government is distributing a video of the Andijan events of 2005 that purports to show how Islamic militants attempted to spark a mass uprising against the government. The video appears designed to counter numerous eyewitness accounts compiled by western news agencies and human rights organizations. However, it sheds no light on the extent of Islamist militant involvement in the massive Andijan protest of May 13, 2005, and how many protesters were motivated by radical Islamic beliefs.
The video, distributed by the Uzbek embassy, was screened May 16 at an event in Washington, DC, jointly sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Central Asia Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University. Uzbek officials claimed the video was based on footage found on supposed Islamic militants taken prisoner amid the government crackdown on the Andijan protesters. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The roughly 20-minute presentation depicted what appears to be dozens of armed men, some making of Molotov cocktails, and several uniformed policemen being taken hostage at gunpoint. It contends that the attacks on government buildings, including Andijan's security police headquarters, which took place prior to the mass protest in Bobur Square constituted an uprising against the state. It does not contain conclusive visual evidence to support the Uzbek government claim that Islamic militants were behind the events. The video does not show scenes of the mass protest itself, or the government's dispersal of the protesters. Human rights organizations assert that security forces opened fire without warning on the largely unarmed crowd.
In addition, the armed militants depicted in the video cannot be readily identified as Islamic militants. Few, if any of the militants pictured in the video were bearded. It likewise does little to undermine independent accounts of the events, which almost uniformly say that the overwhelming number of Andijan protesters turned out to protest official corruption and poor living standards. Indeed, the scenes contained in the Uzbek-distributed video screened at the Hudson Institute do not substantively contradict the exhaustive timeline of events assembled by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Basing their versions of events on numerous eyewitness interviews, both rights groups say the trigger for the Andijan events was local authorities' criminal prosecution of a group of Andijan businessmen. The entrepreneurs, who had gained wide popularity because of their charitable activities, insisted that the government put them on trial because they were viewed as a possible threat to the authority of local officials. They contended that the trial also was motivated by a desire on the part of corrupt local officials to take over their lucrative businesses. According to the rights groups, an armed group staged a jail break designed to free the entrepreneurs, and these militants later attacked government buildings. The rights groups say that Islam appeared to play virtually no role in motivating the prison raid, or the attacks on government buildings. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The two moderators of the May 16 event, the Hudson Institute's Zeyno Baran and CACI's Frederick Starr, said they had viewed a longer version of the Uzbek video, in which the supposed Islamist militants urged civilians to attend the protest in the square. The extended footage also allegedly depicts militants shouting "Allahu Akbar" during the protest. Taken together, Starr claimed, the extended footage offers "overwhelming" evidence to support the Islamic uprising scenario. However, no such evidence was present in the footage shown to the audience assembled on May 16.
The footage of the Andijan events was interspersed in the video with interviews with some of the 15 men convicted of fomenting the violence. The veracity of the video testimony could not be independently verified. The Uzbek government has faced widespread criticism from right groups and Western governments over the use of torture to coerce testimony. The men interviewed in the video described their organization and training in Kyrgyzstan. [The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in its report on the trial of the 15 men, said that the defendants' confessions appeared suspiciously rehearsed, with some reading from papers on their laps.]
Both Baran and Starr acknowledged the video to be "propaganda," yet nevertheless said it was important to present all sides of the Andijan debate. But many in the audience were skeptical of the Uzbek government's claims. Baran and Starr faced numerous challenges. Some criticized the moderators for ignoring Uzbek domestic factors -- namely the government's widespread use of repressive tactics, combined with economic neglect - that appeared to motivate a large number of Andijan residents to turn out on the main square and vent their frustration.
Kevin Jones, a graduate fellow at the University of Maryland who interviewed many Andijan refugees in Kyrgyzstan, said that the overwhelming number of protesters he talked to were not motivated by Islamism. "It's clear there was a cell, a well armed group of people who planned this. What all of their motivations were, I don't know. On the other side, though... there were a large number of people who were caught up in it, they saw an opportunity to express their frustration at the government, at the economic issues, at all these other issues that have been boiling there that all of us are very aware of," he said.
Starr sought to undermine the credibility of several independent news accounts, including the eyewitness reporting by a correspondent for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, alleging journalists deliberately falsified their stories. "I think they were lying ... of course they had an anti-government agenda," he said.
Galima Bukharbayeva, who led IWPR's coverage of the protest and subsequent massacre, was one of the eyewitnesses singled out by Starr for misleading reporting. In an interview with EurasiaNet, Bukharbayeva insisted that she had reported the presence of armed people at the protest. She added that these armed individuals did not have any obvious association with Islamic radicals, saying they appeared to be ordinary citizens arming themselves with Kalashnikovs for protection. [Bukharbayeva's first report from Andijan confirms this account]. She reiterated that she did not see any evidence to support the Islamic uprising claim, and that the protest was inspired by people's dissatisfaction with the government.
"I will not say that I have seen everything that was going on, I saw just one part of this huge, huge thing. But I can say that there was no 'Allahu Akbar,' no Islamic militants," she said.
"It's shameful for Fred Starr to ignore that people in Uzbekistan, for 17 years, have never had any chance to speak out and be heard by the government of Uzbekistan, and finally these poor and desperate people start military resistance - unfortunately, I'm not happy about that, but they don't see any other way to defend their rights in Uzbekistan because you can't go to the police, you can't go to court," she said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.