KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of protesters jammed into Babur square in the city of Andijan, relishing a rare burst of defiance as one speaker after another condemned hardship under Uzbekistan’s despotic government.
Hours later, a decade ago Wednesday, hundreds lay dead in torrents of blood.
Troops sent by President Islam Karimov’s Interior Ministry moved to quash the demonstration with ferocious and unexpected brutality.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has for a decade accumulated evidence and testimonies about one of the worst state-sanctioned massacres in recent history. Ahead of the anniversary, HRW again demanded that Uzbekistan allow an independent investigation into a tragedy that has traumatized all but a few into silence.
“There was screaming, the women especially were crying, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!’ And the shooting continued for about half an hour,” human rights activist Lutfullo Shamsuddinov, who was on the square that day, told HRW in a report compiled for the anniversary. “And then it was clear, even clear to the soldiers themselves, that there was no return fire.”
HRW Central Asia researcher Steve Swerdlow said an investigation was needed to bring closure to those still scarred by the violence.
“There is a pressing need for accountability,” Swerdlow said, “if for no other reason than the extreme pain and anguish that so many families inside and outside Uzbekistan are still going through.”
According to Uzbekistan’s official account, around half of the 187 people killed were armed militants. Other assessments by international organizations say the bulk of the dead were defenseless protesters and numbered at least 300 — with some counts rising to nearly 1,000.
AP reporters present in the city that day heard sustained heavy gunfire from the location of the protest. Uzbek authorities acted fast to bar international media from freely accessing the site of the unrest.
Although most in the crowd were unarmed, some individuals did have guns; they had detained a senior prosecutor sent to negotiate with demonstrators, which appears to have been sufficient reason to prompt the bloody crackdown.
In 2005, Uzbekistan was considered a close and dependable ally for the United States, which was then still embroiled in large-scale military operations in neighboring Afghanistan.
Washington, however, was unable to ignore calls to condemn the bloodshed in Andijan.
U.S. criticism of human rights violations elicited a swift and ill-tempered reaction from the Uzbek authorities. Significantly for Pentagon planners, the Uzbek government kicked the U.S. military off its strategic position near the town of Kharshi, well under an hour’s flight from Afghan territory.
The West has largely forgotten the events in Andijan. But rights activists say authorities in Uzbekistan to this day continue to hound anybody even loosely involved in the demonstrations.
Many were jailed or fled overseas, so police have since turned their attention to relatives. Swerdlow said family members are regularly made to write confession-style letters referring to their implicated loved-ones as enemies of the state.
“In many of these cases,” he said, “the same people have been writing the same explanatory notes for the last 10 years.”
That pressure is twinned with a demonization campaign.
A state-sanctioned movie released in cinemas across Uzbekistan this year, titled Sotqin, or Traitor, presents a heavily fictionalized recreation of Andijan. It depicts the unrest as the handiwork of ruthless foreign-funded Islamists bent on seizing power.
In the climax, special forces launch a surgical operation to wipe out the militants, although it is made clear that some ruthless elements manage to get away all the same. The message of the blood-spattered cautionary tale: The threat is still present.
With little prospect of bringing the Uzbek authorities to heed back home, Andijan survivors have been forced to pursue justice elsewhere.
One such man, Husanboy Ruziyev, has filed a petition before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, accusing police and security in Uzbekistan of torturing him and failing to properly investigate the violence in 2005. Ruziyev said in his petition that he was among the crowds targeted by government troops on May 13, 2005.
Ruziyev, who now lives in the Netherlands, is being represented by the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative and Fiery Hearts Club, a rights group founded in the Ferghana Valley region, where Andijan is located.
“In terms of why it’s important to bring such cases, I think it comes down to accountability,” said Jeff Goldstein, an Open Society policy analyst.
While the West has periodically issued notes of concern about Uzbekistan’s general human rights situation since Andijan, the emphasis has now shifted back to security.
In January, the United States set a fresh precedent with the announcement that it was giving Uzbekistan more than 300 mine-resistant vehicles, the largest ever transfer of U.S. military hardware to Central Asia. The equipment was donated to help defend Uzbekistan from possible incursions from Afghanistan and assist patrol the border against drug traffickers.
Such is the opaque and closed nature of the authoritarian government, however, that there is no way of knowing how Uzbekistan is actually using the military assistance it receives from the United States.
“The units that fired on the civilians (in Andijan), we have no idea where they are in the system,” Swerdlow said. “Are these the same forces that are coming into contact with U.S. military equipment?”
Lukatsky, a photographer based in Ukraine for The Associated Press, was present in Andijan on the day of the massacre and took photos of the events that day.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.