The world’s media may be packed with coverage about the 10th anniversary of fatal unrest in the city of Andijan on May 13. But Uzbekistan’s tightly censored press has built a wall of silence about the shooting of protestors by security forces a decade ago.
Headline news in state media on the day of the anniversary covered President Islam Karimov’s tour of urban projects in Tashkent. Private outlets stuck to safe topics such as traffic jams in the capital.
Only one Uzbekistan-based outlet stepped out of line: Uzmetronom.com – a Tashkent-based website which is unusually outspoken and is believed by many Central Asia watchers to be close to the security services – carried a short and loosely worded editorial to mark the anniversary of what it described as the “tragedy” in Andijan.
“Is it worth recalling events of 10 years ago today?” Uzmetronom.com asked rhetorically. “It is, even if only so that they are never repeated.”
The editorial noted the discrepancy between the official death toll of 187 and estimates put forward by human rights campaigners, which run well into the hundreds. It hinted darkly at outside forces stirring the violence and spoke of “ordinary people who naively believed in lofty moral ideals” being “manipulated by cynical and pragmatic leaders” whom it did not name.
Tashkent has not responded to renewed calls for an international investigation. The violence a decade ago erupted out of a protest in Andijan that was sparked by the trial of local businessmen who were part of a loosely affiliated group nicknamed Akromiya (named after its jailed spiritual leader Akrom Yoldoshev). The protest spiraled into wider demonstrations about socioeconomic conditions. During the unrest, some protesters broke into an Andijan prison and freed detainees including the Akromiya businessmen.
Tashkent casts the violence as an Islamist uprising, a claim human rights campaigners dismiss. In the run-up to the anniversary, Uzbekistan’s state film production company released a movie set in Andijan about an Islamist plot, called “Traitor.” Although the producers denied it was a depiction of the 2005 unrest – calling the film instead “the tragedy of a family which falls victim to religious extremism” – it was interpreted in Uzbekistan’s media as “a bid to make fresh sense of the origins of the tragic events in Andijan, which were initiated from abroad.”
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a fresh call for an investigation on May 13. “We must, on this day, not only remember those who lost their lives in the massacre, or their families, still waiting for justice,” Michael Link, director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said. “Most importantly, we must renew our call for the establishment of an independent, credible, international investigation.”
That call has been echoed by international human rights groups, which say Karimov’s regime instigated a massive crackdown following the Andijan violence in which thousands were jailed on spurious charges.
“Fear still hangs over the people of Uzbekistan. They live with the knowledge that simply for speaking out, they can be shot and killed with impunity,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement which urged the United States and European Union to take action over Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record.
The US Embassy in Tashkent issued a mild statement on May 13, extending the United States’ “deepest sympathy to the families and friends of all those who lost their lives or suffered” in the Andijan violence and stating its commitment “to encouraging accountability, reconciliation, democratic reforms, and the protection of human rights” in Uzbekistan.
That will do little to convince campaigners who believe the West has prioritized geopolitical considerations over human rights abuses in Uzbekistan.
“Governments in Europe and the USA have continued to turn a blind eye to this and other appalling human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, seemingly for fear of upsetting a strategic ally,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.