Are the Usual Suspects Responsible for Uzbekistans Violence?
Uzbek President Islam Karimov claims Islamic radicals are responsible for the recent violence that has engulfed Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley, leaving hundreds dead. Eyewitness testimony, meanwhile, says government security forces indiscriminately shot civilians in acting to crush what was, in essence, a protest over the government's disregard for basic political and economic rights. This discrepancy bodes ill for stability in Uzbekistan.
The death toll from the ongoing clashes between security forces and civilians varies widely ranging from several hundred to several thousand. The Uzbek government's tight grip on mass media is complicating efforts to obtain accurate information about events. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The blood began to spill on May 13, when government troops retook the center of the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan, leaving 500 or more dead and producing a wave of would-be refugees streaming toward the nearby border with Kyrgyzstan. An Uzbek human rights group claimed that a clash in Pakhtabad on May 14 between government troops and Uzbeks trying to cross over to Kyrgyzstan left another 200 dead. Sporadic violence continued to be reported in Andijan and nearby border towns on May 16. Government troops have cordoned off the area and are tightly controlling access to Andijan and Kara-Suu, a town on the Kyrgyz border.
Karimov, in comments made May 14, said the government had information linking a radical Islamic group, dubbed Akromiya, to the confrontation in Andijan. He said the group, which he portrayed as an off-shoot of the underground Islamic radical movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir, had plotted for "at least three to six months to prepare the attack on Andijan."
The May 13 events began when protesters seized arms from a military depot and attacked a local prison, freeing the inmates, including some who had been jailed on charges related to radical Islamic activity. After battling local police during the early morning hours, militants took control of local government offices. At least nine people were killed and 34 wounded during the initial burst of fighting. Meanwhile, unarmed protesters gathered in the central square outside the regional administration building. Many of the protesters called on Karimov to resign, voicing complaints with the government's economic and political policies. Radical Islamic rhetoric, especially calls for the establishment of a regional caliphate, did not feature prominently during the protest. Then, shortly after 5 pm, government troops, backed by armored personnel carriers, moved in, prompting more gunfire that led to hundreds of casualties among the protesters. Karimov said at least 10 members of Uzbek security forces died in the operation.
"The coincidence of everything that happened on the streets of Andijan ... indicate that everything was calculated and planned beforehand," Karimov insisted. He added that the insurgents' aimed to foment a popular uprising that would "over-turn the existing constitutional order" and "set up a so-called Muslim caliphate" under shari'ah, or Islamic law. He went on to imply that his administration's firm response saved the country from chaos.
"They [the alleged militants] hoped that local and central authorities alike would not demonstrate any firmness, that is to say, that none of the official duties would be discharged, as was the case in neighboring Kyrgyzstan," Karimov said, referring to the popular protests that toppled Askar Akayev's administration in Bishkek in March. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Karimov claimed that no official order was given to open fire on the civilians in Andijan's central square, saying that the militants started the gun-battle during an attempt to break out of encirclement. "If bandits are retreating and shooting back and killing those who are pursuing them, those in pursuit will naturally not only defend themselves, they will also shoot."
Eyewitness accounts tend to contradict most aspects of Karimov's explanation of developments. Galima Bukharbaeva, in an account published by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), said that government armored personnel carriers opened up on the crowd with heavy weapons, firing at random while moving at high speed. [For additional information click here]. By most accounts, economic discontent drove many local residents to join the protest. Some participants told a EurasiaNet contributor that government economic policies, especially punitive taxation on trade, were impoverishing many Uzbeks without providing any means for relief of dire financial problems.
In addition, Karimov's contention that Islamic militants had plotted the Andijan action for months in advance was belied by eyewitness accounts. Protest participants, including some who escaped to Kyrgyzstan, said the trigger for the unrest was the government's decision to arrest 23 local businessmen on suspicion of belonging to Akromiya, the supposed Islamic radical group. Local residents, speaking to a EurasiaNet correspondent, adamantly denied that the detainees had anything to do with Islamic radical activity. The entrepreneurs were described as devout Muslims who had become popular in Andijan by carrying out a wide array of charitable activity, including programs to assist the most impoverished local residents. The government, which is keen to monopolize authority, acted against the entrepreneurs out of concern that their philanthropy could some day be translated into political power, local residents said.
The trial of the 23 entrepreneurs sparked peaceful protests outside the courthouse on May 11-12. Trying to quell the protests before the judges announced their verdict, local SNB officers rounded up supporters of the 23. It was an effort by friends and relatives to secure the release of the SNB detainees that sparked the chain-reaction of events that culminated in the show-down in the evening of May 13. According to IWPR's Bukharbaeva, the core group of the Andijan militants comprised friends and relatives of the 23 entrepreneurs, along with the other SNB detainees -- and not Islamic radicals with a well-coordinated plan.
Though Karimov spoke of Akromiya as though it was a well-documented organization, Uzbek officials have yet to produce hard evidence of its existence. Indeed, Uzbek officials have routinely blamed Islamic radicals for a variety of bloody events -- such as the four-day uprising in Tashkent in March 2004 and the suicide bombings at the US and Israeli embassies last summer without providing proof that could substantiate claims that Uzbekistan is the target of an international terrorist conspiracy. Local observers say the violent events have home-grown roots. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite the considerable body of evidence that contradicted Karimov's claims, both the United States and Russia initially accepted his arguments concerning the use of force in Andijan and elsewhere in the Ferghana Valley. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov alleged that the Taliban "played a role" in fomenting the Andijan events, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. Lavrov appeared to justify Karimov's action by saying that if regional authorities "talk about the possibility of cooperating with them [Islamic radicals], we shall be putting the entire region on the brink of a crisis."
US officials, meanwhile, avoided any direct criticism of Karimov's actions. State Department officials noted May 13 that Islamic militants may have been among those who escaped during the Andijan jailbreak, while calling for "restraint." On May 16, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher hardened the US government position somewhat, saying Washington was "deeply disturbed" by reports coming out of Andijan. Boucher called on Uzbek authorities to improve access to the embattled area and reminded Tashkent of the need to uphold international human rights norms.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also called on May 16 for a "more open" political system in Uzbekistan that contained safety valves for the release of pent-up popular frustration. Karimov has steadfastly resisted all calls to liberalize Uzbekistan's political and economic framework. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Bush administration has been reluctant to back repeated calls for reform in Uzbekistan with the imposition of sanctions, or other punitive measures. [For background see the Eurasia Insight].
The only immediate condemnation of Uzbek behavior came from British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, who said the Andijan events constituted a "clear abuse" of human rights. Straw's forthright criticism drew a rebuke from Tashkent. "How did Mr. Jack Straw know that law-enforcement agencies
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