Burying the Truth; Uzbekistan Rewrites the Story of the Andijan Massacre

He started beating me and yelling, ‘You are lying! You are hiding the truth! We have information that you were on the square with an automatic gun. Confess!’ And [he] punched me in the chest. I was insisting I was innocent and never possessed arms… Then they brought me back to the room where others were sitting and some time later they told me and some others to get into their police car and escorted us to the GUVD [Andijan City Police Department].
A man detained for questioning in Andijan
Human Rights Watch interview, Andijan, July 15, 2005

It was a nightmare and I don’t want to go through it again. Please, do not contact me ever again with these questions.
A man detained for questioning in Andijan
Human Rights Watch interview, Andijan, July 15, 2005

On May 13, 2005 Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters as they fled a demonstration in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan. To date the government has taken no steps to investigate or hold accountable those responsible for this atrocity. Instead it is denying all responsibility and persecuting those who seek an independent and transparent investigation.

In the early morning hours of May 13, gunmen attacked government buildings, killed security officials, broke into the city prison, took over the local government building, or hokimiat, and took hostages. Towards dawn, they began to prepare for a large protest in Bobur Square, in front of the hokimiat, and mobilized people to attend. By 11:00 a.m., as word spread, the protest grew into the thousands, as people came of their own will and vented their grievances about poverty and government repression. When government forces sealed off the square and started shooting indiscriminately, the protesters fled. Hundreds of them were ambushed by government forces, which gunned them down without warning. This stunning use of excessive force has been documented by the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations.

The attackers who took over the government buildings, released prisoners, killed officials, and took hostages committed serious crimes. Any government has a legitimate interest in investigating and prosecuting such crimes and an obligation to do so while upholding the rule of law. But the Uzbek government is using widespread repression and abuse to manipulate the truth, so that it can depict the protest itself as violent—organized by “terrorists” with a radical Islamic agenda and with the participation of mostly armed protestors— and suppress any evidence to the contrary, and shift the blame for the deaths of so many unarmed people.

Little is known about the prosecution of those formally charged with the crimes described above, though there is reason for concern that their trials, scheduled to begin in September 2005, will not be fair. Human Rights Watch has been able to learn much, however, about the authorities’ wide scale crackdown to suppress any information that contradicts its version of the May 13 protest and the killings. In Andijan, police detained, severely beat, and threatened people to coerce them to sign false confessions of belonging to extremist religious organizations and bearing arms while participating in the May 13 protest; to name others at the protest; to incriminate others in violence; or to say that they witnessed violence at the demonstration. Uzbek authorities hounded many of the families of hundreds of people who had fled the protest and became refugees in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, to compel them to come home where they too could be interrogated and prevented from telling their story to the outside world.

The government also unleashed a crackdown on civil society, the ferocity of which is unprecedented even in Uzbekistan’s fourteen-year history of repression since it became independent from the Soviet Union. The authorities have aggressively pursued human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists who attempted to convey the truth about the events of May 13 and the days that followed. 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. As this report went to press, at least eleven activists had been imprisoned, and at least fifteen had been forced to flee the country into exile.1

The present report documents the coercive pressure for testimony, which the government is using to rewrite the history of what happened on May 13. Almost immediately after that date, Andijan residents were placed under the close surveillance of their neighborhood committees, or mahallas. Beginning in June, police detained for questioning hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of people with any connection, no matter how remote, to the May 13 events: protesters, their relatives, relatives of those who fled to Kyrgyzstan, people who lived in the vicinity of the main square, and the like.

Those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that police kept them in custody under false pretenses, usually by fabricating misdemeanor charges against them, and used the time in custody to beat or threaten them into signing the false confessions and statements described above. Once police got what they wanted, and only then, they released the detainees, on condition that they sign statements saying they had no complaints about their treatment.

During the summer months, Uzbek television broadcast a series of scripted public confessions in which people say they were misled into going to the protest, attest that they have repented, beg for forgiveness from President Karimov, and are then shown being handed over to their parents and mahalla committee for rehabilitation.

Uzbek authorities attempted to extend their reach across borders. Human Rights Watch maintained a field presence in Jalal Abad, Kyrgyzstan to monitor the protection of refugees who fled Uzbekistan after the violence. Our constant contact with refugees and their families allowed us to document, in this report, the extraordinary pressure Uzbek authorities exerted on them to return to Uzbekistan. Mahalla and other government agents detained, ill-treated, and threatened people in Andijan to pressure their family members who were refugees in Kyrgyzstan to return. These officials made promises that the refugees would be safe if they returned to Andijan, if only they would “ask the state’s forgiveness.” In a few dramatic cases, government agents attempted to forcibly return refugees by physically dragging them out of the camp.

Despite the Uzbek government’s promises, there is little doubt that, had they returned to Uzbekistan, the refugees would have faced detention and abuse. At the same time as local Uzbek authorities were saying the refugees would be safe in Andijan, the Uzbek media were full of official statements that these people were not refugees but religious extremists and terrorists. By July, Uzbek authorities stated that more than two hundred of the refugees, almost half the population of the refugee camp in Jalal Abad, were wanted for extradition. The danger of forced return was so great that in late July international agencies evacuated them to Romania, where their safety could be better guaranteed. However, four of the asylum seekers remain in police custody in Kyrgyzstan and may yet be extradited to Uzbekistan, where they face an almost certain risk of torture and ill-treatment.

This report also documents the crackdown against “truth-tellers”—human rights defenders, civil society activists, political activists, and independent journalists—whom the government has sought to intimidate, discredit and silence. Human rights defenders in Andijan have been hit hardest. For example, Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, a veteran of Uzbekistan’s human rights movement, has been in jail since May 21 on charges of terrorism and sowing panic among the population, in retribution for his efforts to inform the world about what took place on May 13.

Civil society activists in other cities have not been spared. The crackdown has been particularly harsh in Tashkent, the capital, and in Jizzakh, about 160 kilometers south-west of Tashkent. Human rights defenders there have been the targets of “hate rallies” and other public denunciations in which local community leaders vilify them, calling them Islamic extremists and enemies of the people, and mobs attempt to run them out of town. Uzbekistan’s government-controlled media have echoed government accusations by frequently publishing invective against human rights defenders, journalists and others, alleging that they are extremists, spies, and abettors of terrorism. In numerous cases, human rights defenders who tried to participate in small demonstrations in Tashkent and other cities ended up under house arrest, beaten up, or in police custody. In one such case, a Ministry of Internal Affairs official acknowledged a policy of “preventive detention,” saying that in the aftermath of Andijan the authorities were “checking all persons of a special category.”

While these actions are clearly directed against those who sought to expose the truth about Andijan, the crackdown appears to continue a broader trajectory of repression begun last year, as the government deepened restrictions on civil society following public uprisings resulting in nonviolent changes of government in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005).

With Andijan de facto closed to independent journalists and human rights defenders who are not on official government delegations, and with the country in the grip of a crackdown, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that government forces will ever be held accountable for any of the killings of May 13.

The government of Uzbekistan has characterized the killings in Andijan as “terrorist acts” and put the death toll at 187, the majority of them “bandits,” “terrorists,” and the government agents they supposedly killed. It has acknowledged sixty civilian deaths, and has attributed all of them to the gunmen and not to fire by government forces. The government has specifically claimed that the gunmen were the ones responsible for the slaughter of civilians retreating from the main square where the protest had been held. Government officials have stated publicly that “foreign powers,” a barely veiled reference to Western governments, instigated the uprising with the aim of carrying out revolts in Uzbekistan similar to those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

As noted above, eyewitnesses interviewed by several international organizations have said most civilians were killed by government forces which ambushed them, and that the demonstrators were protesting government corruption and repression and their own economic plight. The government has resolutely rejected calls by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for an international investigation that would have secured access to crucial evidence about the deaths—hospital records, morgue records, forensic autopsy records, ballistic reports.

Instead, the government and the state-controlled media in Uzbekistan are working furiously to rewrite history, to produce a new account of the Andijan events, and to bury the facts that contradict it. This effort has created an atmosphere of fear and repression intended to silence those who would challenge this version or seek justice for the deaths of their loved ones.

Four months after the massacre, the exact death toll remains unknown. There is no clear and confirmed information about what happened to the bodies of those killed. The fate of wounded people taken to the hospital remains unknown. Details regarding the specific units responsible for shooting unarmed civilians also have not been revealed.

A parliamentary commission was established in May but does not appear to be examining the issue of the use of excessive force by government forces.2 The commission has invited the diplomatic community to observe its work, but this is no substitute for an independent international investigation—involving ballistics, forensics and crime scene experts and with access to eye-witnesses—that could fill the current information gap.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government to investigate the detention process in Andijan and to hold accountable those responsible for coercing statements through beatings and other mistreatment. Courts should be specifically ordered to exclude as evidence any such testimony.

We call on the government to immediately stop using torture to extort confessions and to guarantee domestic and international monitors access to trials of human rights defenders, journalists and political activists and to trials of those accused of involvement in the Andijan violence.

We urge the government to cease the detention and harassment of people who express their views through peaceful assembly and expression and to immediately release from custody human rights defenders, journalists and political activists wrongly detained and arrested, including: Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, Nurmukhammad Azizov, Akbar Oripov, Dilmurod Muhiddinov, Musozhon Bobozhono, Hamdam Suleimanov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdusattor Irzaev, Khabbubulla Akpulatov, Abdurasul Khudainazarov, Nosir Zokir, and Elena Urlaeva.

We reiterate our call to the Uzbek government to allow a fully independent international investigation into the events of May 13, and to hold accountable government troops who used excessive force.

The international community has an important role to play in pressing the Uzbek government to undertake such an investigation. The United States and the European Union and its candidate states, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all called for an international investigation. These governments and organizations have played an active role in protecting Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan and other countries, and have also greatly supported the community of human rights defenders in Uzbekistan during this most recent crackdown.

Efforts by the United States and the European Union to use the leverage at their disposal to obtain Uzbekistan’s consent to an international investigation into the killings in Andijan have been far weaker, however. Both the United States and the European Union appear to have backed off rather than implement a more robust strategy to hold the Uzbek government accountable for the loss of life. Human Rights Watch calls on the government of the United States and the European Union to adopt targeted sanctions against the Uzbek government given its refusal to act on these calls. The European Union should, without further delay, agree to partial suspension of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan. Because in the absence of an independent investigation it has not been possible to determine which Uzbek units took part in the Andijan massacre and cover-up, we urge the United States to freeze any remaining military and counter-terrorism assistance to all units of the Uzbek armed forces, National Security Services, and Ministry of Internal Affairs, pursuant to the Leahy amendment which stipulates that U.S. government aid shall not be provided to units that have participated in gross human rights abuse.

Read the full Human Rights Watch report.

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