Uzbekistan’s Deadly Decade
Ten years after a massacre that shocked the world, the regime of Islam Karimov is still in power -- and as brutal as ever.
Ten years ago, Uzbekistan’s security forces shot dead hundreds of unarmed people demonstrating for greater economic and political freedom in the eastern city of Andijan. Initial international condemnation came quickly, but as is too often the case, world interest has evaporated like drops of water in the Central Asian sun. Repression in Uzbekistan has only intensified since then.
The Andijan massacre of May 13, 2005, belongs to a shameful global list of missed opportunities for justice and accountability. World leaders by and large did little to censure the government of President Islam Karimov. Tashkent’s dictator stared them all down — and the world blinked.
The course of events not only reveals a great deal about Karimov, whose iron-fisted rule has lasted since the Kremlin installed him as Communist Party boss in 1989. It also shows the consequences of the world’s failure to insist that justice be done — or anyone be held accountable — for such a shocking abuse of power. And 10 years later, the human rights violations perpetrated by the regime remain a blot on the world’s conscience.
The massacre began on the night of May 12, 2005, following weeks of protests in connection with the trial of 23 local businessmen for “religious extremism” — a charge regularly used by authorities to neutralize dissent. Arrested in June of 2004 on these trumped up charges, their trial, which was punctuated by protests, had for many come to embody the key injustices of life in Karimov’s Uzbekistan: grinding poverty, corruption, widespread rights abuses, and a campaign of persecution against religious Muslims. When the verdict was finally read on May 11, the long-simmering tensions in Andijan that had permeated the trial boiled over into open violence. A group of 50 to 100 men, mainly supporters of the jailed businessmen, attacked several government buildings and broke into the city prison to release them, along with hundreds of other prisoners.
Following the prison break, in the early hours of May 13, thousands of residents began to gather in Andijan’s central Bobur Square to protest what they saw as an unfair trial and the wider economic and political injustices in the country. Many expected that Uzbek government officials, including even President Karimov himself, might come to address the throng.
But in the morning on May 13, Uzbek security forces fired machine guns into the crowd from armored personnel carriers (APCs) and sniper positions above the square without warning. Surrounded, protesters were unable to escape. Troops blocked off the square and opened fire, killing and wounding unarmed civilians en masse. Security forces later swept through the area and executed some of the wounded where they lay. The massacre lasted hours.
As U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, I first called for an independent investigation into the Andijan events on May 18, five days after the killings took place. The report by my office in the immediate aftermath concluded that “consistent, credible eyewitness testimony strongly suggests that military and security forces committed grave human rights violations in Andijan,” even a “mass killing.” The report was based on interviews with eyewitnesses in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where some of the survivors had fled immediately after the violence.
The events in Andijan initially attracted widespread international condemnation. In addition to my office, other U.N. bodies — as well as the European Union, the United States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the NATO Council — condemned the response by Uzbek security forces and called for an independent international investigation into the events, demanding unhindered access.
After the Uzbek government adamantly rejected these calls and refused to cooperate with the international community, the EU imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan, including an EU-wide visa ban for high-ranking officials “directly responsible for the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in Andijan,” and an embargo on arms exports to the country. The United States didn’t go that far, but it did further tighten restrictions it had placed on military assistance.
But the pressure wasn’t enough — and Karimov didn’t budge.
In the years that followed, condemnation subsided and the outside world seemed as anxious to move on and forget the massacre as the regime did. Within a couple years — without giving the sanctions any chance to have serious impact — the EU eased and then dropped its economic restrictions. Germany was a key actor in the phasing out of sanctions, seeking to hold on to its military base in the town of Termez. The United States didn’t stand firm either. In 2012, keen to maintain good relations with Karimov in order to receive his assistance in transiting supplies in and out of neighboring Afghanistan, the Obama administration waived all restrictions on military assistance even as Uzbekistan’s rights record continued to worsen: Ever more political prisoners were hauled into jails and labor camps, where torture is systematic.
In short, the Uzbek government got away with mass murder because, as is often the case, interests prevailed over principles, and the world was willing to forget the victims in order to work with the killers. It’s the worst lesson possible for aspiring tyrants.
Still, it’s never too late to change that message and start sending the right signal to Karimov and other murderous autocrats. Those responsible for these kinds of atrocities should be forever afraid that the time for reckoning will come. Given the appalling human rights situation that remains in the country — no media freedom, political opposition is forbidden, thousands of political prisoners are imprisoned, the security services use systematic torture, and slave labor is used in the cotton fields — a coordinated international response remains urgent.
Members of the U.N. Human Rights Council should mark the 10th anniversary of the Andijan massacre by establishing a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan to hold the government accountable for ongoing, egregious abuses and to ensure sustained scrutiny. It’s role would be similar to the one for North Korea.
It may seem a small measure in the overall scheme of things, but for a country so averse to independent scrutiny, such a mechanism would place consistent and public pressure on Tashkent to account for its abuses. It would also be a modest corrective to the injustice done to the victims of Andijan and send a crucial message of support to the millions of other Uzbeks whose human rights have been denied these past 10 years.
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