The government of Uzbekistan has been engaged in unprecedented efforts, including massive detentions, torture, and forced confessions, to persuade its people and the outside world that Islamist extremists were responsible for a bloody massacre in Andijan last May, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The two groups, which released separate reports Tuesday condemning the regime, stressed that human rights and other civil society activists who have tried to tell the truth about the May 13 massacre, in which at least 700 people are believed to have been killed, have been targeted by the government.
They expressed particular concern about Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov, the chairperson of Andijan’s independent rights group, Apelliatsia (Appeal), who was arrested a week after the massacre and charged with "spreading information with the aim of causing panic" and "terrorism," but has been missing in custody for some six weeks.
"We’ve been following political repression in Uzbekistan for many years, but we’ve never seen anything as extensive as the crackdown post-Andijan," said Holly Cartner, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director. "Instead of going after the perpetrators of the massacre, the Uzbek government is trying to deny responsibility and silence the witnesses."
The two new reports coincided with the opening of trials in Tashkent against the first 15 defendants charged by the government of President Islam Karimov with a number of crimes related to the killings, ranging from membership in an illegal group, to riot, to murder. The 15 men reportedly pleaded guilty to all charges, including conspiracy to create an Islamic state.
The two reports were also released amid congressional complaints that the Pentagon has decided to pay almost $23 million to Tashkent for its use of the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan between late 2001 and July, when the Karimov government demanded that U.S. forces leave the country.
The demand followed the suspension of U.S. aid to Uzbekistan to protest the massacre and of Karimov’s refusal to bow to Western calls for an independent international inquiry into the incident.
"To turn over millions of taxpayer dollars to such a government at this time risks undermining the clarity of America’s message in the region and would be seen as a sign of weakness," declared a letter from six senators, including four Republicans, to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld has been the principal defender within the administration of President George W. Bush of a close U.S. relationship with Karimov since Congress and the State Department first began pushing for greater distance from the Uzbek strongman two years ago.
Since the May 13 massacre, the Karimov government has claimed that the events of that day were triggered by a conspiracy of violent Islamist extremists, associated terror organizations, and the so-called Akramia group. The last is a circle of Muslim businessmen who had supported local development in and around Andijan, which is located in the densely populated Fergama Valley that Uzbekistan shares with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The government has also insisted that 187 people died in the May 13 killings, including 94 alleged terrorists, 35 policemen, and nearly 60 civilian demonstrators, all of whom it says were gunned down by the militants, rather than by the government’s security forces.
Based on interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses, including refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan after the massacre, rights groups have provided a very different account.
They agree that events leading to the killings began in the early morning of May 13 when attackers took over a number of government buildings, released detainees, including members of the Akramia group, from the city prison, and killed security officials.
However, they say the vast majority of deaths occurred later in the day when, during a spontaneous anti-government protest of thousands of people in the city’s main square, government forces sealed off the area and started shooting at demonstrators indiscriminately. As the protesters fled, hundreds were ambushed by security forces. Most estimates place the total death toll at about 500.
In their latest reports, the two rights groups charge that the Karimov government has since been engaged in a major campaign to propagate its version of events from blocking Web sites within Uzbekistan that offer a different account to rounding up several thousand people, including journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition activists.
In many cases, the reports say, the government has used torture or threats of torture, as well as retaliation against family members.
"The truth is under siege," said Maisy Weicherding, Amnesty’s researcher on Uzbekistan and the main author of the new report, "Uzbekistan: Lifting the Siege on the Truth About Andizhan." (Andizhan is a spelling variation of Andijan).
"The government wants to prevent the truth about what really happened in Andijan from coming out," she said.
The 73-page HRW report, "Burying the Truth," accuses the Karimov government of "using widespread repression and abuse to manipulate the truth," including, among other measures, the detention, beating, and torture of hundreds of people to force them to sign false confessions of belonging to extremist religious groups and carrying arms at the May 13 protest and to incriminate others in the violence.
In addition, Uzbek authorities hounded many of the families of hundreds of people who fled across the border to Kyrgyzstan to compel them to return home, according to HRW. The group charged that the "ferocity" with which the crackdown on civil society leaders has been carried out "is unprecedented even in Uzbekistan’s 14-year history of repression," which is widely considered to be the worst in the Central Asia region since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.
"These individuals have been arrested on spurious charges, detained, beaten, threatened, put under surveillance or under de facto house arrest, and have been set upon by mobs and humiliated through Soviet-style public denunciations," according to the HRW report, which noted that at least 11 activists had been imprisoned and at least 15 others forced to flee the country.
Both groups call for Tashkent to agree to an independent international inquiry into the Andijan killings and their aftermath and for Western countries, particularly the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to press the Karimov government to cooperate with such an inquiry.
In addition, HRW called on the EU and Washington to impose an immediate arms embargo on Uzbekistan and a visa ban against senior Uzbek officials. It urged the EU to immediately suspend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan and for the U.S. to freeze any remaining military and counterterrorism assistance to all units of the country’s military and security forces.
(Inter Press Service)