Uniformed security forces aided and may have participated in June’s interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said on August 16. In a detailed new report, the prominent New York-based advocacy group chronicles the violence and its aftermath, including extrajudicial detentions of Uzbeks, widespread police torture and denial of due process.
The report, “'Where is the Justice?' Interethnic Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan and its Aftermath,” raises “serious concerns that some government forces either actively participated in, or facilitated attacks on, Uzbek neighborhoods by knowingly or unwittingly giving cover to violent mobs,” during the June 10-14 violence that left at least 370 dead and displaced hundreds of thousands. “Local law enforcement agencies also failed to provide appropriate protection to the Uzbek community.”
The report also recommends Bishkek investigate how the mobs easily acquired military weapons and vehicles.
Despite the “staggering challenges” of confronting the mobs of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, the security forces – comprised mostly of ethnic Kyrgyz – “seemed to respond differently to acts of violence depending on the ethnicity of the perpetrators, raising concerns that capacity was not the only reason for their failure to protect the population. By and large, the security forces seemed to focus resources on disarming the Uzbek population, even after Kyrgyz mobs started to systematically attack Uzbek neighborhoods on June 11,” says the report, based on over 200 interviews in June and July.
During the research, many Kyrgyz “officials appeared to be biased, openly voicing common stereotypes about ethnic Uzbeks, referring to their wealth, access to arms and drugs, and alleged political ambitions.”
In the ensuing investigation, authorities have targeted ethnic Uzbeks, torturing to extract confessions and planting evidence, researchers found.
One former Uzbek detainee told Human Rights Watch that police “put a gas mask on my head and kept cutting off the air so that I would suffocate. When I lost consciousness, they would pour water on me and start again. Then they put me against the wall and punched me very hard in the kidney area—I still cannot sleep at night from the pain in my kidneys and liver, and going to the toilet causes a lot of pain, too. They also beat me with a truncheon on the soles of my feet—so hard that I was bleeding from my nose and ears.”
In a typical testimony, 50-year-old “Magomet M,” detained by police on July 7, said that investigators tried to plant ammunition on him.
“The Kyrgyz investigator started waving his pistol in front of my nose, saying, ‘I’ll smash your head, and will shove these bullets up your ass!’ Then he openly took the cartridge clip out of his pistol, took the bullets out, and put three of them into my pocket,” said Magomet M.
In Kyrgyzstan, the report is likely to stoke resentment among those growing wary of foreign assessments of the violence and the perception that internationals are unfairly siding with Uzbeks. But those seeking to blame Uzbeks for starting the conflict are likely to welcome at least one finding from “Where is the Justice?” Human Rights Watch suggests that the violence started on June 10 when groups of Uzbeks attacked Kyrgyz after a fight between young men in a casino.
“While Human Rights Watch documented attacks against both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks, most of the attacks that took place in the night between June 10 and June 11 seem to have been by Uzbeks targeting ethnic Kyrgyz, using fists, knives, sticks and, in some cases, firearms.” The report does not address how the Kyrgyz gangs formed to respond so quickly, or if, in accordance with popular belief, any participating groups had sponsorship.
Nevertheless, Uzbeks have born the brunt of attacks and suffering, the report concludes: “Although both ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were involved in the acts of violence in June, so far the investigation appears to be disproportionately targeting ethnic Uzbeks.”
David Trilling is the Central Asia news editor for EurasiaNet.