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."

Condemnations

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."

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