bne IntelliNews -
Two badly photoshopped pictures portraying Uzbek President Islam Karimov praising the “creative potential of our people” from a street in Tahskent represented the only statement released by the government on the 10th anniversary of the Andijan massacre on May 13. It could hardly be otherwise, as Uzbek authorities have never been held accountable for what went to the history books records as one of the bloodiest pages in the recent history of Central Asia.
Despite an initial retaliation by the international community, mostly limited to arm sales and military aid from the US and the EUn, sanctions on Uzbekistan have been gradually lifted and local authorities left off the hook. In fact, Karimov has just started another five-year term on top of his already 25-year long tenure at the helm of the country and state repression and human rights abuses have only escalated since the Andijan events.
“The repressions, arrests, extrajudicial killing which followed that massacre were unprecedented,” Shahida Tulaganova, an Uzbek journalist in exile, said in an interview published by Human Rights Watch (HRW). “There were street measures to get anyone that would even mention Andijan or speak about human rights across the country... Ten years down the line, how many human rights defenders have we got left in Uzbekistan? We can count them on our fingers – not even ten. How many journalist we have left in Uzbekistan? Almost none.”
Thousands of people in the city of Andijan, on the southeastern edge of the Fergana valley, had been staging a rare, peaceful protest in the central Bobur Square during the first weeks of May 2005. Originally sparked by the trial of some 23 local businessmen accused of “religious fundamentalism”, the protest quickly assumed the tone of general criticism to the growing poverty and government repression, numerous reports later confirmed.
Things spiralled into violence when the local court upheld charges against the 23 men and sentenced them to 12- to 23-year jail terms. At that point, a group of armed men stormed the prison where the 23 men were being held and freed them, then seized control of other government buildings, took people hostages and “committed serious crimes”, according to a report by HRW.
The retaliation by government troops was ruthless. They sealed off Bobur Square and fired indiscriminately on the protesters, who appeared to be largely unaware of what was about to unfold. "We don't know what happened to us,” a local woman that took part in the protest was quoted as saying by an early BBC report. “All of a sudden these heavy armoured vehicles came, we don't know how it all happened, we are simple citizens, ordinary people. I don't know if it was an armoured vehicle or a tank. A helicopter was flying above, and after this helicopter turned up above our heads, the shooting started. Can you imagine, they were shooting us from above, with our children. We lay on the ground, and panic broke out."
Government troops chased down protesters all day long, and carried out summary execution of those previously injured, as emerged in reports that followed the massacre. Authorities put the official death toll at 187, but witnesses told of hundreds of bodies lying in the street. The victims could be as many as 1,500, according to Ikrom Yakubov, a former major in the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) who defected to the United Kingdom in 2008. President Karimov directly ordered senior military officers to instruct troops to fire on protesters, Yakubov alleged in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in September 2008.
The Uzbek authorities have always rebutted such claims and stuck to the official version of the facts Karimov gave right in the aftermath of the killing on May 14, when he blamed the violence on Islamic extremists.
The state repression has reportedly continued since the Andijan massacre. “The Uzbek authorities continued to seek out, arrest, harassed and imprison anyone suspected of participating in those events, witnessed those events and even family members of those who took part in those events,” Steve Swerdlow, HRW's Central Asia researcher, said in a video.
Thousands of those involved in the Andijan protests eventually fled the country to seek asylum in places like Sweden, which still proved to be within the reach of the Uzbek government security forces, renowned for chasing down critics abroad. Unidentified armed men shot prominent Uzbek religious cleric Imam Obidkhon Qori Nazarov in the Swedish town of Stromsund in 2012. He eventually survived the assassination attempt, but was in a coma for two years.
The US and EU initially enacted sanctions to put pressure on the Uzbek authorities. Yet they were gradually eased as the logic of realpolitik, which makes Uzbekistan a strategic ally in the region for its geographic closeness to Afghanistan, eventually prevailed. With little or no pressure from the international community – the US government often sparked controversy for its “strategic patience” policy toward Uzbekistan – the country’s track record of human rights abuse has only gotten worse. “Rampant torture and other ill-treatment plays a 'central role' in the country’s justice system and the government’s clampdown on any group perceived as a threat to national security,” a 2015 report by Amnesty International reads.
Campaigners are now calling the international community to play a more active role in putting pressure on Uzbek authorities. “The US, EU and other key governments have a responsibility to speak clearly about what happened in Andijan and seek accountability for Uzbekistan’s atrocious human right record,” HRW’s Swerdlow said. “This means willing to impose asset freeze on Uzbek officials who were tied to Andijan and other human right abuses. And they should go to the United Nations Human Right Court and establish a special mechanism on Uzbek human right record. This will provide accountability and signal to Uzbekistan’s people that Andijan and other human right abuses will not go unnoticed, will not be forgotten.”
In the absence of any such measure, the rare, independent voices that are left within the country will be definitely stifled and that creativity of the Uzbek people that Karimov praised will be gone for good.
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