The popular uprising and subsequent crackdown by government troops that left hundreds dead in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan confirm the international community’s concern over human rights violations in this central Asian nation.
According to Nozima Kamalova, chairwoman of the Uzbekistan Legal Aid Society one of the country’s leading human rights organizations this former Soviet republic is now essentially a dictatorship, with over 6,000 political prisoners and a deplorable human rights record.
Uzbek civil society is calling out to Western governments to pressure the government in Tashkent to respect human rights, said Kamalova, who traveled to Geneva as part of a delegation of rights activists.
Since gaining independence in 1991 upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan has been ruled with an iron fist by President Islam Karimov, who first banned all political opposition, and then moved on to repress religious activity, said the Uzbek attorney and activist.
Karimov has enjoyed strong support from the West, and particularly from the government of U.S. President George W. Bush, which needed allies in the Central Asian region for the late 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
The death toll from the bloody events of the weekend in Andijan, a prosperous city on the country’s border with Kyrgyzstan, has yet to be confirmed.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Tashkent, Rolin Wavre, said that it was extremely difficult to get a precise idea of the number of deaths or to obtain information about what actually happened in Andijan.
But the civil society representatives who came to Geneva at the invitation of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) maintain that over 500 people were killed in the bloodshed.
Dilshad Tillamodjaev of the Center for Democratic Initiatives in Andijan noted that when the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, many of the victims were women and children.
"Karimov said that he didn’t order them to shoot, but that is not true," he added.
Karimov and Prosecutor-General Rashid Kadyrov appeared at a press conference Tuesday, where the official death toll was placed at 169 comprised of 137 "terrorists" and 32 government soldiers, according to Kadyrov.
But representatives of the unregistered opposition Free Peasants Party announced that at least 745 people were killed, 542 in Andijan and another 203 in the nearby town of Pakhtabad.
Kamalova said the revolt in Andijan was influenced by uprisings in other former Soviet republics like Georgia, Ukraine and most recently, Kyrgyzstan.
Andijan is somewhat unique in Uzbekistan, she noted, as the country’s most prosperous city, which is home to a large middle class, thanks to the local automotive industry.
A similar incident would be unlikely to take place in the capital, Tashkent, because it is a much more conservative city, she added.
In Tillamodjaev’s opinion, however, "This is a situation that could happen in any region of the country, because there is a political, economic, and social crisis in Uzbekistan."
A study released this week by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) states that 27.5 percent of the country’s nearly 26 million people live in poverty.
Laetitia Sedou, the European coordinator of the OMCT, told IPS that human rights violations in Uzbekistan affect large sectors of the population, including women and children, and particularly in areas outside the large cities.
Many of the human rights abuses involve members of religious groups, particularly Islamic groups, which are branded terrorist organizations
There are also frequent attacks on human rights activists, members of opposition political parties, and outspoken journalists, she added.
Kamalova reported that the roots of last week’s unrest in Andijan go back to the arrest and imprisonment last year of 23 successful local businessmen, who were sentenced on charges related to their religious beliefs.
In the early morning hours on Friday, a group of armed men broke into the Andijan prison and freed the 23 Muslim businessmen, who had been charged with "Islamic extremism."
According to a press release issued Monday by human rights watchdog Amnesty International, all of the prison’s 1,200 inmates were released at the same time.
Events turned bloody later in the day, when government soldiers surrounded a crowd of several thousand protesters who had gathered in the city’s main square to demand justice, freedom, and an end to poverty.
"There were reports that gunfire was exchanged between armed men and soldiers, and shots were apparently fired into the crowd," noted London-based Amnesty International, which is calling for an independent investigation.
Kamalova maintains that it was President Karimov who gave the order to open fire. "I think this is the beginning of the end for the government," she declared.