A local power struggle dating back to 2004, and not an alleged Islamic radical conspiracy, sparked the chain of events that culminated in the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, a source with detailed knowledge of events tells EurasiaNet.
The Uzbek government is engaged in an expansive effort to convince domestic and international opinion that Islamic militants were responsible for the violence that engulfed Andijan on May 13. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Defendants at a show trial being staged in Tashkent have testified that Islamic militants belonging to the so-called Akromiya group sought to foment an uprising in Andijan with the ultimate goal of toppling President Islam Karimov's administration. Akromiya members received backing from international terrorist groups, according to the official Uzbek version of developments. Citing Uzbekistan's atrocious rights record, human rights activists believe the defendants were likely tortured into making confessions. The defendants have testified that their testimony has not been coerced.
Rights activists say the Karimov administration is trying to use the trial, along with a wide-ranging mass media campaign, to deflect blame for the Andijan massacre. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to eyewitness testimony gathered by rights groups, including Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), the overwhelming majority of deaths during the May 13 events in Andijan occurred when Uzbek security forces opened fire without warning on peaceful demonstrators gathered in the city's central Babur Square. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Extensively documented reports prepared by AI and HRW contend that a trial of 23 Andijan businessmen served as the catalyst for the May 13 events. The businessmen were accused of being members of Akromiya, and of engaging in activities aimed at undermining the government. The entrepreneurs, who were arrested in during the summer of 2004, adamantly denied any affiliation with a radical Islamic group. They admitted to being devout in their religious practices, while contending that they were being prosecuted because local authorities felt threatened by the entrepreneurs' popularity within the local community.
As the entrepreneurs' trial drew to a close in early May, hundreds of friends and relatives of the 23 businessmen would gather outside the court building to stage daily protests. The events of May 13 began when relatives and supporters of the 23 reportedly staged an armed raid to free them from a local prison, according to eyewitness accounts. The prison break gave way to a spontaneous protest at Babur Square, attracting thousands of unarmed demonstrators, who voiced complaints about the Karimov administration's social and economic policies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A source, who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity due to fear of government retribution, said the trial of the 23 businessmen was directly linked to a May 2004 shuffle of the provincial governor, or hokim. At that time, the Andijan's regional legislature impeached Andijan's long-time hokim, Kobiljon Obidov, and replaced him with Saydullo Begaliyev. The reshuffle was widely believed to be engineered by Karimov.
The 23 entrepreneurs had close personal ties to Obidov, according to the source. "He [Obidov] was the province's master ... businesses favored by the hokim got the green light for everything," the source said. "All the entrepreneurs who enjoyed his [Obidov's] patronage grew rich."
Obidov was reportedly a long-time favorite of Karimov's. The Uzbek president used to tout Andijan as a model business environment, in which the entrepreneurial spirit was encouraging economic growth. In recent years, however, a series of scandals and protests removed the luster from Obidov's star. An investigative television report in 2002 exposed Andijan as having a serious problem with homelessness. During the winter of 2003-04, the region was rocked by protests over a shortage of heating fuel.
The governor also faced charges of personal impropriety. In one incident, he was accused of neglecting the provincial public transport system so that private business in which he reportedly had a major financial interest a 100-vehicle fleet of minivans, known locally as marshrutkas would be ensured a large share of passenger traffic. He was also accused of shielding his son from prosecution for a variety of alleged offenses, including racketeering.
Karimov personally attended the legislative session on May 25, 2004, during which Obidov was sacked. "The whole city was cordoned off by the militia and there were [security officers] in masks in jeeps, along with army soldiers," the source said. "Karimov was obviously worried. ... Obidov had ruled [in the region] for a long time: he was part of the Ferghana clan and he had lots of supporters."
The new hokim, Begaliyev, had close political ties to the central government. Prior to coming to Andijan, Begaliyev had served as minister of agriculture and water. In late 2004, Karimov appointed Begaliyev's successor as agriculture and water minister, Ikromkhon Nazhmiddinov, as the governor of Ferghana Province. The moves suggest that Karimov was intent during the last half of 2004 on boosting his political influence over the restive Ferghana Valley.
Once installed in Andijan, Begaliyev wasted little time in launching a purge of all Obidov allies. "Criminal proceedings were started against many of his [Obidov's] administration members," the source said. "The new hokim also decided to re-divide the businesses in the province; he cracked down on the entrepreneurs who had been supported by Obidov. They were told to sell their businesses for a pittance either to him [Begaliyev] or his people, or face legal proceedings." When the 23 businessmen tried to resist, the hokim ordered their arrest, the source said. They were officially charged with being members of Akromiya, and engaging in extremist activities.
The 23 entrepreneurs had a reputation for being fair employers, offering comparatively high wages to those working in their businesses. They were also active in a variety of charitable endeavors, providing assistance to the poor. This gained them a large body of supporters, including employees and their families.
As the entrepreneurs sat in pre-trial detention, friends and relatives worked behind the scenes to secure their release. After their trial began on February 11, supporters of the 23 sent a written appeal to Karimov, asking that the president intervene in the case. "Karimov never replied," the source said.
As the trial proceeded, it became clear that a guilty verdict was preordained. Some or all of the 23 attempted to stage a hunger strike, but authorities force-fed them, the source said. In May, with the trial nearing its end, relatives sought to generate publicity about the case, hoping that unwanted attention would force authorities to make a deal that would keep the entrepreneurs out of prison. For several days relatives, friends and employees staged peaceful protests outside the courtroom. The source said the daily protests comprised between 500-1,000 people. The mood during these demonstrations was non-confrontational, the source said. The protesters were not especially vocal and did not act aggressively. In turn, riot police made no move to disperse the crowds, according to the source.
At the same time they were organizing the peaceful protests outside the court, relatives of the 23 entrepreneurs may have been conspiring to carry out the prison raid, the source indicated. The source said that shortly before May 13, relatives contacted other supporters of the 23, telling them to "be ready" for sudden developments. "They were making some other arrangements," the source said.