Deadly Uzbekistan Protests Still Echo a Year Later

When Shahiba Yakub smuggled herself into Uzbekistan in June last year, the world had already forgotten Andijan and its dead. A surreal sense of calm enveloped the city in the eastern part of the country, only a month after clashes between government forces and protesters left hundreds dead.

"The streets were empty," the 31-year-old Uzbek journalist, who has been living in London since 1996, told ABC News. "People were afraid to come up and talk to us fearing reprisal from the police. But signs of conflict in the main square were everywhere: bullets all over the walls, the cinema burnt down, a surreal sense of fear."

'Massacre' or 'Events'?

On May 13, 2005, following a controversial trial that condemned 23 well-known businessmen in Andijan, a group of protesters took over government buildings. Later in the day, a largely peaceful crowd gathered in the main square in support of the takeover. Shooting followed.

The Uzbek government has maintained that 187 died in the violence, almost all of them security forces or violent protesters and insurrectionists. International organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, claim the actual figure is far higher, setting the death toll at 500 people, including women and children.

After the clashes -- labeled as a "massacre" by human rights activists and as "events" by diplomats -- Tashkent moved quickly to silence journalists and arrest witnesses, hunting down those who escaped into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Yakub's 12-minute "Forced to Silence" remains the only independent video available on Andijan after the events.

"We met families who did not know what happened to relatives," Yakub said. "Some disappeared. They might have been killed. Some crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan. As communication was impossible, we found ourselves in the position of telling a refugee woman in Kyrgyz territory that her brother died in the clashes. She didn't know."

Hundreds of protesters crossed into Kyrgyzstan. Around 430 of them were then granted refugee status by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and were airlifted from a Kyrgyz-operated refugee camp to Romania in July 2005 following pressure from officials in Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on officials in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to extradite the groups for alleged terrorism.

A former BBC World Service stringer in Andijan, who now is under protection and could not be named, was an eyewitness who has been granted political asylum. Talking now from a secure location in Europe, he recalled the shooting.

"The square was packed with people, there were many women, children," he said. "There was confusion. The square was surrounded. Then there were bullets everywhere."


International concerns followed swiftly. NATO condemned the reported use of "disproportionate force" by the security forces. Both the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called on the authorities to allow an "independent, international commission" to investigate the events in Andijan. And in November, the EU published a list of 12 high-ranking Uzbek government officials subject to a visa ban.

In December 2005, the U.N. condemned Tashkent's refusal to allow an international investigation and urged the authorities to stop their "harassment and detention of eyewitnesses."

The United States, whose military base in the Uzbek city of Khanabad is strategically important to operations in Afghanistan, asked for an "objective and transparent international investigation." Uzbek President Islam Karimov rejected the possibility of an outside inquiry and, in July, ordered the U.S. troops out of the southern military base.

A year later, international human rights groups are lobbying for the West to renew pressure on Karimov for an international investigation into the events. In two new reports issued this week, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Tashkent of a cover-up.

"The trials," the HRW report stated, "did nothing to answer the outstanding questions about the scale of and the responsibility for the massacre."

"No one has been held accountable" added Steve Strohlein, HRW's London director.

U.S. Pressure

The calls from human rights organizations found supporters among government officials in both the United States and the European Union.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., are reintroducing legislation in Congress to fund the promotion of democracy and human rights in Central Asia, with proposed sanctions on Uzbekistan directly affecting Karimov and his governing circle. The bill will prevent U.S. funds from going to the Uzbek government until a credible international investigation gets under way. The proposed bill mirrors EU sanctions by establishing a visa ban and an asset freeze for Uzbek officials and their families, in addition to an export ban on munitions.

Talking to an international conference in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently McCain painted a dark picture of a country with repression of civil society, Soviet-style show trials and expulsion of international media and nongovernmental organizations.

Tashkent blamed U.S. and other foreign groups for fomenting the protest, accusing Washington of sending Islamic terrorists to destabilize the country.

Talking to the Russian press agency Interfax on Thursday, Col. Abdumutal Zakurlayev, a senior investigator at the Uzbek Interior Ministry, said, "Obviously, last May's events resulted from the collusion of religious and extremist organizations, which wanted to seize power with the assistance of external forces."

He added that, "The destructive forces planned to repeat the colored revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. They wanted to create unrest but minimize the use of arms."

On Wednesday, the British Government said it would continue pressing Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record and try to strengthen punitive measures already in place against the Central Asian nation.

"We will keep up the pressure on Uzbekistan in order to make sure that the human rights situation … is changed," Prime Minister Tony Blair said.