Uzbek government security forces engaged in the "wanton slaughter" of unarmed protesters during the Andijan events in May, a new report prepared by Human Rights Watch asserts. The report suggests that the Uzbek government is incapable of conducting a fair inquiry into the incident, adding that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights should be charged with overseeing the investigation.
"The scale of this killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre," the report states. The number of killed remains a source of contention, the report adds. The Uzbek government has set the death toll at 173. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The report insists that the number of victims was significantly higher, but adds that "the government's efforts at sealing off the city and intimidating people from talking about events to outsiders have made it exceedingly difficult to establish the true death toll." Thus, the HRW report says only that "hundreds were killed."
The Uzbek government has maintained that Islamic militants sparked the events by fomenting unrest in Andijan. But HRW investigators found little evidence that could substantiate Uzbek officials' claims. Instead, HRW faulted the government for the tragedy. "Our findings clearly demonstrate the Uzbek government forces' undeniable responsibility for the massacre," the report said.
The report indicates that the arrest of 23 local entrepreneurs on charges of "religious fundamentalism" served as the catalyst for subsequent events. The entrepreneurs were arrested in June 2004 and went on trial in February of this year. The case against the 23 entrepreneurs "was widely perceived as unfair, and had prompted hundreds of people to peacefully protest the trial in the weeks prior to May 13," the report says.
HRW says it is "unclear" as to whether the detained businessmen were members of an underground radical group, called Akramiya, as government officials claimed. "The father of one of the defendants asserted that all the defendants were simply devout Muslims," the report says. Some of the defendants, interviewed by HRW investigators in a refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan, denied having anything to do with "religious extremism."
The Andijan events began in the early hours of May 13, when an armed group staged a raid on a local prison with the aim of freeing the jailed entrepreneurs. The militants, comprising many friends and family members of the detained, later occupied a government building and took local officials hostage. The HRW report described the militants as committing "serious crimes, punishable under the Uzbek criminal code."
As the militants settled into the government building, or hokimat, in central Andijan, they sought to "prepare for a massive protest in Bobur Square," the HRW report says. The militants took action, including notifying friends and relatives by telephone, designed to attract a large crowd to the square. At the same time, the report notes, "many protesters joined the crowd on their own initiative." Militants, according to witnesses interviewed by HRW, either remained in the hokimat building, or were stationed on the perimeter of the square. Those "within the protesting crowd" were unarmed, HRW investigators say.
"As the crowd grew into the thousands, the protest was transformed from the actions of several dozen armed gunmen into a massive expression of dissatisfaction with the endemic poverty, corruption, unemployment, repression and unfair trials that plagued the area," the HRW report states.
Throughout the day, the report says, the number of hostages held by the militants increased. In some cases, unarmed civilians accosted people and handed them over to the militants. Among the hostages were "suspected government agents in the crowd," the HRW report says, adding that the overall number of those held against their will, most of whom were uniformed policemen and other known government officials, approached 40.
Government security forces, including snipers, periodically shot at the protesters on Bobur Square. "Possibly up to 50 persons were killed during these early skirmishes," the report states. Around midday, some militants established contact with Interior Minister Zokir Almatov and attempt to conduct negotiations aimed at redressing the complaints of the local population. The talks broke down and by 4 pm, government forces were taking action to seal off the square.
A government assault, carried out from several directions and launched without warning, commenced shortly after 5 pm. The HRW report states that Uzbek troops "fired indiscriminately."
"One group of fleeing protesters was literally mowed down by government gunfire," the report says. The actions of government troops, HRW investigators assert, violated the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which requires police to "apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force." The Basic Principles were adopted in 1990.
"It is the right and duty of any government to stop such crimes as hostagetaking and the take-over of a government building," the HRW report stated. "However, in doing so, governments are obligated to respect basic human rights standards governing the use of force in police operations."
The report cites several eyewitnesses as stating that Uzbek soldiers, instead of seeking medical assistance for the wounded, would instead finish them off.
The HRW report notes that an Uzbek government commission has been established to judge the actions of security forces. But HRW maintains that, given the Uzbek government's cover-up efforts to date, "it is reasonable to assert that this commission will be subject to political pressure and therefore lack credibility."
Tashkent has adamantly rejected international calls for an independent outside investigation. But the HRW report calls on the international community to "press for and make possible" such a probe under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
To increase the international pressure on Tashkent, HRW is urging the United States to review its strategic relationship with Uzbekistan. In the wake of the September 11 terrorism tragedy, President Islam Karimov's administration developed into one of Washington's key partners in ongoing anti-terrorism operations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The centerpiece of military cooperation is the airbase at Karshi-Khanabad, which US forces use for support missions to neighboring Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "If the Uzbek government does not accept [an independent] investigation, the United States should bring an end to its post-September 11 strategic partnership with Uzbekistan and discontinue its military presence in the country," the HRW report recommends.
HRW also calls on the European Union to suspend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan until Uzbek officials consent to an international investigation. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should likewise scale back assistance to Uzbekistan because of Tashkent's lack of progress in improving human rights conditions, HRW suggests, adding that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should "deploy special missions" to both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to monitor the "rapidly deteriorating human rights situation" in the area. China and Russia could contribute to regional stabilization by voicing public support for an independent investigation, the HRW report adds.