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Uzbekistan’s Growing Police State

The recent massacre in Uzbekistan's northeast city of Andijon is strikingly similar to the bloody crackdown in China's Tien An Men square: no cameras, and no access to verify the number of dead.
 
 
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Back in 1996, I heard a Peace Corps volunteer in Feghana exclaim that if American workers were not paid their salaries on time, there would be riots all over. But his Uzbek colleagues, university teachers, did not see their salaries for months and waited patiently. They would say at least they have jobs, when so many are unemployed.

By 2004 people could not stay silent any more. They have been picketing their factories, organizing impromptu demonstrations in the bazaars when government decided to raise taxes yet again. Finally, the biggest demonstration involving thousands of people in Andijan ended in a massacre of hundreds of men, women and children.

The US's main Central Asian ally in the "war on terror," and designated torturer for suspects handed over by Washington, has just refused Kofi Annan's request to allow a UN inquiry team into the massacre of 800 peaceful demonstrators shot dead in the main square in Andijan. So far, there have been no threats of intervention by Washington.

Instead, "balanced" statements by the State Department say that Uzbekistan should open up and work toward democracy -- and that both sides should show restraint -- putting the massacred and their murderers on a par. Even calls for an independent inquiry are unenthusiastic.

The massacre reminds many of events in Tien An Men square more than 15 years ago -- no cameras, no access to verify the number of dead. Only eyewitnesses who fled to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan tell of the horrors of that day.

Where's Uzbekistan?

While Westerners know where China is, for many Uzbekistan is another obscure country with a Muslim population. Since it gained independence in 1991, Uzbekistan's economy, as well as its human rights record, has been steadily deteriorating. More than half of the population lives in rural areas, where they work year-round and are paid in flour and oil instead of cash. Their children are poorly fed and are forced to pick cotton, unpaid, when the harvest time comes instead of going to school.

The situation in the cities is not much different: the average salary is $15 a month, enough to feed a family of four for a couple of days. As a measure of how desperate living standards are, when the international community wanted cheap labour to build reactors in North Korea, they hired Uzbek construction workers. Undercutting Kim Jong Il is quite a feat.

Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov, who often scolds the journalists for not being bold and writing about social issues, has never tolerated a free press. Today, Afghanistan has more independent newspapers and TV stations then Uzbekistan. After the events in Andijan, authorities expelled all journalists from Andijan, taking away their tapes, notebooks, and equipment, and none have been allowed back in. The local media -- which the government controls -- has been reporting the tragedy as a small incident organized by a bunch of armed criminals and that all is under control now.

The information blockade has proved very effective. I have spoken to people in towns only 30 miles away who are unaware of what happened in Andijan. Local TV stations and newspapers ran transcripts and showed hours of footage of press briefings by Karimov, taking their cue from his speeches. With Uzbekistan's long track record of ignoring deaths in custody and gruesome torture reports, I cannot be very optimistic about the attention span of its Western allies.

No one can be sure of the death toll, but it is certain that official figures, and indeed official versions of what happened, can be completely discounted. While the Uzbek government is adamantly denying that this kind of massacre occurred, claiming that "only" 169 people were shot, an army source told the BBC that 500 were killed when troops opened fire on protesters on May 13. This figure was echoed by a city doctor who was observing the bodies dumped in a local school and eyewitnesses interviewed by journalists and human rights groups.

The door-to-door account by Nigora Hidoyatova, a brave member of the Ozod Dexkon (Free Farmers) party revealed more than 800 dead. Many more are said to be dying of wounds in a local hospital due to the lack of necessary medicines -- a perennial condition in Karimov's police state. Meanwhile, countless graves with small numbered plaques sprang up in the city cemetery, indicating that the authorities have been hastily burying the dead.

While for many years observers have been predicting a bloody confrontation in Uzbekistan, nobody expected even Karimov to order shootings of innocent men, women and children.

"How can I give an order to shoot my own dear people!" he exclaimed at a press briefing, blaming journalists for reporting allegedly false news about peaceful demonstrators. He further went on to blame "Islamic extremists" who want to create another Taliban-like regime.

Under pressure from the international community, the government allowed a group of diplomats and journalists to visit Andijan. However, since they were not allowed to speak to anyone, except for the chosen and "trained" few and were escorted to their plane after only two hours of "observing" the city, it was a fruitless exercise.

Uzbekistan emerged as a close ally in the war on terror after it allowed Americans to set up a military airbase near the Afghan border at the time the U.S. was planning to fight against the Taliban. Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1986, first, as a Communist Secretary, and later, as elected president. Subsequent elections were moslty rigged and no serious opponent has run against him, since he banned their parties and exiled their leaders. The Parliament rubber-stamps all of the president's decrees. They held an emergency session after the events in Andijan and have repeated the "facts" already aired by the authorities and condemned the "criminal acts of those who want to derail Uzbekistan from its democratic path."

Since 2001, Uzbekistan has received hundreds of millions in aid to improve its security -- army and police. Even though the U.S. State Department has verbally criticized the regime's human rights record, the Bush Administration turned a blind eye to the "friendly" dictator and kept the military aid flowing. Last year, when the State Department cancelled 11 million in aid due to the abysmal human rights record, the Pentagon reissued it from a different budget under a different name.

As long as Karimov labeled those who opposed him as "religious extremists and terrorists," he got away with the imprisonment and torture of thousands of dissidents. By some estimates Uzbekistan has over 7,000 political prisoners, while the rest of the population is plunged into extreme poverty. Unemployment is high and corruption is a part of ordinary Uzbeks' lives. Private enterprises are heavily taxed and draconian laws on convertibility of the local currency make foreign investments unprofitable.

Not a single political opposition party is registered, and any independent media outlet is closed as soon as it opens. Intrepid journalists as well as human rights activists are silenced by threats, jailing and beatings. Government and secret police recruit minders to report on their neighbors, colleagues and fellow students in return for social privileges. And as we know, the regime has enough clout to secure the recall of a British ambassador who refuses to toe the Tashkent line.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that there have been many deaths in Andijan and excessive use of force by the government troops but fell short of directly asking Karimov for an explanation. Unlike Jack Straw, who condemned the violence and called on the government of Uzbekistan to conduct a full independent inquiry, Ms. Rice appealed to Uzbekistan's government to open up its political system and to reform.

This is either naïve or cynical and implies continuing support for Karimov. He, on the other hand, has already declared openly that no other power in the world can dictate how he should bring about democracy to his country.

To be fair, Washington's prevarication has been put in the shade by neighboring powers such as Russia and China who have dismayed human rights organizations by expressing their support for Karimov's regime, and condemning a group of "Islamic fanatics" for destabilizing the region.

The European Union and NATO took a different position, condemning excessive force by government troops and calling for a full independent inquiry into the bloodshed. Even so, both EU and NATO officials expressed hopes that both sides on the conflict would restrain from using force.

While the international community waits in hope that it can persuade Karimov to open up, hundreds or possibly thousands of innocent Andijanis are being imprisoned, tortured and their human dignity and spirits crushed because they wish to stand up for their fundamental human rights. Weeks before the Andijan massacre, President Bush said "We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability." It will be interesting to see if he was serious.

Anora Mahmudova is an Uzbek journalist based in the U.S.